Mike Leigh has created his own unique picture of Britain that is at once full of despair and full of hope. He has managed to reproduce this difficult balancing act time and again through his large body of work, sometimes moving more toward one end of the spectrum, sometimes the other. His last film, Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), was distinguished by some rosy tints that came over a little too much like whistling in the dark. In Secrets and Lies (1996), probably one of his best films to date, he embraced the darkness. On this rather simplistic scale, Another Year falls squarely between the two extremes.
The title, like virtually everything about this superbly crafted film, is part of its meaning, adding to the way we respond to it. Most films focus in on a specific or unique event, picking it out as something worthy of a cinematic narrative. Leigh’s film tells of the events in just “another year” in the lives of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a middle-aged couple working in fulfilling but mundane jobs who have become comfortable in each other’s company. As a small island of domestic contentment, they have become a refuge for friends less fortunate in their personal lives, notably Mary (Lesley Manville), an administrator who works with Gerri and who has seen the best years of her life pass her by.
Mary, full of uncertainty and prone to consoling herself with drink, puts many demands on her friends, who for the most part have the emotional reserves to cope with her. But Gerri, for all her poise, knows that her island of calm and civility must be protected. After one particularly unforgivable outbreak by Mary, Gerri lays down the law: “This is my family,” she tells Mary, and no soldier defending the last bastion could sound more determined. Leigh has never been guilty of supposing that happiness is a right that doesn’t have to be earned, and Another Year, rather than being about any particular event, is about our unequal ability to be happy.
DIRECTED BY: Mike Leigh
STARRING: Jim Broadbent (Tom), Lesley Manville (Mary), Ruth Sheen (Gerri), Oliver Maltman (Joe), Peter Wight (Ken), David Bradley (Ronnie), Imelda
RUNNING TIME: 129 Minutes
TAIWAN RELEASE: Today
Manville is one of the highlights of Another Year, playing a woman whose illusions about herself, rather than any external circumstances, are the source of much of her despair. You get a sense of a fundamentally decent woman destroying herself and others around her simply as a result of her own insecurities and fears. It’s heartbreaking to watch, and Gerri, good friend though she may be, feels no particular obligation to make Mary over anew.
Another Year is divided up into four chapters, following the four seasons of the year. It plays out like a cinematic symphony in four movements, each with its own major theme but linked to the others by a larger and often unseen structure. The film opens and closes in a minor key, and in between there are moments of hard-earned joy and almost unbearable sadness.
Small scenes about the minutiae of lives lived in close proximity allow Leigh’s cast to achieve great dramatic power, and he shows us that simple domestic lives are a battlefield where many fall by the wayside.