Extracting big drama out of small events is Mike Leigh's forte, and with his latest little masterpiece, Another Year, the English director pushes himself to the extreme.
Leigh's 19th film is about a married, late middle-aged couple, improbably named Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), who enjoy working in their garden allotment. He's a geologist, she's a counsellor in a medical clinic, and they have an unmarried son, Joe, who's about 30. The film follows them over the course of four seasons, through various get-togethers with a few of their less well-off friends.
Now comes the truly shocking part: Another Year dives into a very scary subject - happiness. Is the capacity for happiness unequally distributed? Is it a learned skill, a delusion or dumb luck? Does one person's good luck exacerbate the misery of their friends? Leigh is a dramatist, not a guru, so his film is not about drawing conclusions but rather about presenting the theme through exemplary moments. The effect of his exploration feels like a bracing spiritual and mental tonic.
A brief opening scene sees Imelda Staunton (star of Leigh's Vera Drake) as Janet, a mousy, depressed patient who's in a lousy marriage and has been sent to see Gerri. Gerri asks her to rate her happiness on a scale of one to 10. One, Janet answers. What would improve her life? "Another life," says Janet.
Downbeat, no doubt, but as a character in Samuel Beckett's play Endgame notes, "there's nothing funnier than unhappiness." That's an oxymoron that Leigh understands profoundly. Misery makes us absurd.
Take Mary (Lesley Manville) for example, one of Gerri's co-workers, and the cringe-making, fascinating mess at the centre of Another Year: "I'm a glass-full sort of girl," says Mary, trying to express her unsinkable spirit rather than her unquenchable thirst. Her full glass is well on its way to emptying another bottle.
For a certain percentage of viewers, she may be too much: Her vain plans, her coquettish affectations, mutton-dressed-as-lamb attire and bottomless need for approval, can make her seem like a cruel caricature of the middle-aged single life. Yet she grows on you in the film, as much as you'd avoid her in real life. An exceptional actress in a stand-out cast, Manville can switch from girlishly eager affectation to stone-cold fury in a blink. The way she assumes and casts off layers of affectation is mesmerizing in this bravura performance, and ultimately, there's something heroic about her humiliating self-exposure. Anyone who wants acceptance this badly deserves it.
Tom and Gerri, meanwhile, enjoy the improbable miracle of contentment.
The movie divides into titled seasonal segments. In spring, Mary comes over and gets loaded and self-pitying at a dinner party, which seems to be her modus operandi. In summer, an old mate of Tom's, Ken (Peter Wight), comes to visit. He's another late-middle-aged mess who dwells on the past and stuffs food and drink into his mouth at a terrifying rate. Later, he makes a rough attempt at coming on to Mary, who rejects him in disgust - at least she's better than him. Gradually, as her behaviour grows more extreme, we feel the shift in Tom and Gerri's attitude from tolerance to exasperation.
Finally, autumn brings some bounty, a girlfriend for son Joe, the buoyant Katie (Karina Fernandez). Like Sally Hawkins' character Poppy from Leigh's last film, Happy-Go-Lucky, Katie's one of those compulsive jokers you know are close to Leigh's heart.
Winter brings a family crisis and a trip to Derby to visit Tom's brother Ronnie (David Bradley), a man who drinks, stares and rarely speaks. Ronnie also has a son (Martin Savage), one of those Leigh characters who's in such a constant rage that it becomes grotesquely comical. What wounds lie beneath his behaviour? We don't know. The closest of relatives can be separated by light years.
For a film about happiness, Another Year offers nothing encouraging beyond sympathy and an insistence on clarity, no matter how pitiless. The most hair-raising scene takes place back in London between Mary and Ronnie, when she arrives unannounced at Tom and Gerri's home. As she babbles on and on, Ronnie stands there, staring and not responding. The scene feels both specific to the characters yet cosmic in its scope - as she recites her litany of needs, alibis and justifications, they are met with a response of overwhelming silence.
- Written and directed by Mike Leigh
- Starring Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville
- Classification: PG