I loved Mike Leigh’s early movie, High Hopes, but he lost me with a subsequent succession of dreary, depressing films mired in the misery of working class Brits, and driven by a leftist political agenda I could identify with, but found tedious. At some point I gave up on him.
That may have been a mistake. I don’t know what his recent movies have been like, having studiously avoided them, but Another Year is superb.
Leigh appears to have moved on from his ideologically driven cinema, and this has freed him to unshackle his characters, to let them find their voices and talk for themselves, rather than as pawns subservient to the designs of a larger political game. The characters are the game in Another Year, and the context is everyday life.
The two leads, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), are middle-aged, middle-class folk with good careers. Yes! Not council tenement dwellers, not petty crims, not junkies or drunks, not doomed and demeaned…
The reflex reaction of hardcore Mike Leigh fans might be to yawn theatrically and indulge in some smug self-talk affirming their enduring leftist/bohemian leanings and decrying their man as selling out. However, if – like me – you’re way past that sort of painful posturing (painful and usually hypocritical and pretentious), read on.
Tom and Gerri are reasonably content with their outwardly modest lot. They have their comfortable home, and still in relatively good physical shape in the autumn of their lives have learned to accept the small pleasures – tending their vege garden in the local allotment, cooking and appreciating good food (and beverages), family, friends. It so happens that many of Tom and Gerri’s friends are lost souls whom they are (mostly) happy to welcome into the stability and warmth of their home.
Gerri’s work colleague, Mary (Lesley Manville), is the most lost of all. Self-centred, in denial about her drinking problem and many other aspects of her life that are dragging her down, pathetically she holds a torch for Tom and Gerri’s much younger son, Ronnie, who is not remotely interested but does his best to humour her, thus keeping her at arm’s length in the kindest manner he can devise. It is quite a feat to remain kind to Mary, for she is so bloody irritating.
It is indicative of Leigh’s move away from leftist proselytizer that Mary is not presented as the victim of an oppressive British caste system. Rather, she is infuriatingly incapable of making decisions to help herself. Responsibility has shifted from the State and its power-mongers to the individual.
However, Leigh is making no judgments here. His purpose is to plumb the depths of his characters and to have them reveal themselves in their complexities and contradictions. As the layers peel back, so profound is the desperate loneliness at Mary’s core (and so brilliant Manville’s portrayal) that she ends up evoking great sympathy and compassion and stealing the film, particularly in the final poignant moments. If you’re not moved speechless by the time the credits begin to roll, get yourself on the waiting list for a heart transplant.
Manville’s performance is truly out of the box, but she’s not the only standout. Jim Broadbent is charismatic as the gentle, wryly humorous Tom, and Ruth Sheen is hugely believable as Gerri. In fact, all the performances are top notch. Inspirational, even.
This is slice-of-life drama at its very best. Leigh’s improvisational rehearsal method of extracting natural dialogue from his performers has always worked well, but never so well as here. None of the actors seem to be acting at all. The contrast between these wonderfully natural performances and the American version of this sort of cinematic realism (a la the vastly overrated Blue Valentine, for example) is stark. The yanks seem to equate ‘natural’ with self-consciously averted gazes, mumbling, stuttering, and talking over the top of each other (someone exorcise James Dean, please!). There’s nothing so affected in Another Year.
Although the actors appear to be extemporising, this is a shrewdly-managed illusion. Leigh knows exactly where he’s heading every frame of the way. Beautifully paced and shot, this is the work of a major filmmaker at his peak who has the confidence to trust in his actors and crew, and the courage and wisdom to believe in and surrender to the wonder and power of the collaborative process.
Warming, heartbreaking, tragic, comic, life-affirming and above all imbued with a great sense of humanity, Another Year is a must-see. The year is yet young, but I doubt it has a better film in store than this.
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