[Note: Unlike a number of 2010 films I'm counting for 2011 consideration, Another Year did manage to get a legitimate limited run in the States (not just festival screenings) last year, but it did so starting Dec. 29. Hence, it's being put in with this year's lot. Also, I want the chance to praise it once more at the end of the year.]
Tom and Gerri Hepple are the best and worst friends a person could have: they are so cheery, warm and content that one could tell them anything and feel better for it. But they also serve as a baiting bug zapper for every broken individual who hasn't achieved happiness past that imaginary but oh-so-tangible point of no return. Drawn by the allure of what seems a perfect life, those lonely, miserable people suddenly find themselves confronted with everything they aren't, and it sucks being the least happy person in a room. It usually leads to yet more unhappiness.
One almost does not need to say that Another Year is a Mike Leigh film as it is almost self-evidently so. Not only does it feature a number of actors who've collaborated with the director before, it displays the cynical but human understanding Leigh has honed over his career, a psychology he achieves through his trademark interaction with and faith in actors. After the deceptively sweet Happy-Go-Lucky—which revealed its own pains and complications in its ostensibly two-dimensional lead and her (bi)polar opposite played by Eddie Marsan—Leigh returns to a more downbeat fare, though the portrait of romantic bliss and Platonic turmoil makes for one of Leigh's most emotionally well-rounded films.
Leigh divides his film into seasons, beginning, appropriately, with spring. Warm but dim yellows dominate the palette, as if Leigh began shooting while the lighting was still being set up. Tiny buds of narrative form, and some even drop off and fail to blossom: the film opens with a woman (Imelda Staunton) trying to fix her insomnia and reluctantly agreeing to see a counselor, revealed to be Gerri (Ruth Sheen), one half of an almost preciously apropos couple with Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geological engineer. We manage to meet Gerri before Janet makes her way to her office, making Janet's tangential relation to the film potentially indulgent, but her scene with Gerri allows the audience to get a gauge of the sort of calm, caring person Gerri is. She makes a career out of letting drunks and depressants who don't want to talk to her foist their misery onto her, and she only tries to bring it further out in order to rid patients of it.
She's a wonderful, natural listener, but not even she can contend with friend and co-worker Mary (Lesley Manville, who shoots to the top of an already-impressive list of performances captured in a Leigh film). If the first 10 minutes or so of the film are tranquil and blooming to fit with the metaphor of spring and gentle maturation, Mary explodes onto the scene like a hormone imbalance during puberty. She speaks, loudly and ceaselessly, about her problems even as she tries to find some spin on her life that makes her out to be a tragic hero. At a bar, she dominates a conversation with Gerri with self-centered talk that puffs up a transparent confidence, but when left alone, Mary tries awkwardly to flirt with a man across the bar, only for his date to arrive.
Amazingly, this might be the least uncomfortable moment of Mary's time on-screen. Every season, she arrives at Tom and Gerri's idyllic, friendly home and promptly drags out her demons like muddy shoes scraped over white carpet. Mary's tone of voice betrays jagged envy of Tom and Gerri's life; she hits on their adult son Joe (Oliver Maltman), who occasionally seems to return her affection, if only out of discomfort; and her drunken face is so slack and drooping it's no wonder every thought that floats to the surface of her wine-soaked brain falls out of her gob. Compared to Marsan's rage in Happy-Go-Lucky, Manville's projected self-loathing is so inherently sympathetic that Tom and Gerri's habitually tested patience with her feels genuine. At the same time, being trapped in a room with someone like Mary can be as awful and terrifying as being forced to contend with Scott, and one meets many more Marys in this world than Scotts.
As the seasons progress, other troubled souls find their way to Tom and Gerri's tranquil Eden, each contrasting with the altered mise-en-scène of the films distinct quarters. The pregnant doctor speaking to Janet at the start of the film arrives at a party in summer with her new baby, the golden-green film tone and static air feeling like the stillness of the noonday sun. But the bolder mood also brings Ken (a heartrending Peter Wight), an old friend of Tom's reduced to a bloated and mumbling mess by alcoholism (he looks as if one could use the ever-present flop sweat on his brow to make martinis). Ken is in the same freefall as Mary, but he recognizes it and breaks down in shame. At the party, he hints at a past with Mary, but she reacts with annoyance and disgust at him throughout, incapable of seeing how much of her is reflected in his tear-stained, blubbery face. Or maybe she can.
A rolling mist tumbles over autumn, breaking up the still, hot air of summer. The car Mary bought as a futile investment in personal stability has begun to fall apart, and her fleeting attempts to remain cheery cease when she learns Joe has a girlfriend, whose incessant sweetness carries a grating edge as Leigh subtly moves into Mary's POV for a tense dinner that nearly brings out Tom's and Gerri's exasperation with their friend. Gerri even starts bristling at Mary's inane, self-serving declarations instead of usually nodding along in a desire to see the rants end.
By the time the frozen blues of winter arrive, everything is in both chaos and horrible calm, the events on-screen more tumultuous than ever but the energy sapped in the cold. Leigh even manages to introduce some new characters who feel as developed and familiar as those who've come through the whole film—besides, one look at David Bradley as Tom's grieving brother, what with his sunken, scarcely blinking eyes and a mustache so anachronistic he resembles a ghost of the Old West, and it becomes somehow unthinkable that he should have appeared any time before the glacial final segment. The quiet chat he has with Mary while Tom and Gerri are away is one of stark horror, the man who actually has a reason to fall apart forming a laconic rock for Mary's withered but persevering self-pity to use as a tether for her drifting mental state.
We all know someone like Mary, and maybe we've actually been her from time to time. Manville plays her as a woman who cannot help but drag others into her pain, no matter how oblivious she is to the woes she catalogs. "I'm very much a glass half-full kind of girl" she says at one point without a trace of irony. At first I didn't want to call what Broadbent and Sheen have "chemistry," feeling it was a word reserved for young, passionate interplay. Then I realized that's what was so impressive about them: they aren't capturing the feel of two people brushing against each other and feeling a spark to chase for two hours. They're a pair capable of communicating barrel-aged love, strengthened and refined by time. It's clear why so much misery arrives at their door: with a world in all forms of turbulence, Tom and Gerri's stability and unbroken spirits almost give them the air of savants (and for all their simplicity, they are both qualified, educated people, as Leigh stresses in several scenes).
Leigh's reputation for cynicism as some sort of character flaw is one of the more insipid of the two-dimensional views of director outlooks (it doesn't quite match the inanity of calling the Coen brothers "nihilists," but it'll do). Another Year, however, offers one of the director's clearest, and best-shot, views on humanity, one unburdened by the abject despair of films like Naked or Secrets & Lies. There is awkward humor in Mary's scene-upending, run-on plays for sympathy, but we're never made to mock or chide her, only to recognize that person, so beaten down that elevation seems impossible so, on conscious and subconscious levels, she seeks to bring others to her sunken plateau. But there are also people in this world like Tom and Gerri, and they're not as rare as we might think.
Here, Leigh gets out whatever grouchiness he might have in the fussiness of the visual detail—using different film stock for each season and aging every prop realistically as the year wears on—and lets his characters exist in all their tactile relatability. The title of the film contains some of Leigh's caustic wit, suggesting the dull, monotonous slog of life, but it also contains the hope of starting anew. Though the film ends on an ambiguous note that leans toward the interpretation that Mary is stuck in her cycle of loathing and insular pity, the possibility remains that she can repair her life and her friendships. More far-fetched, but no less believable, things have happened in Mike Leigh films.