Another Year, Mike Leigh’s gentle tragic-comedy, is the perfect winter warmer. As the nights draw in, Leigh’s warm, cosy film will doubtless satisfy many of the acclaimed director’s fans as well as winning the praise of critics and the movie fraternity alike. Such plaudits would be well deserved. After 2008’s slightly underwhelming Happy-Go-Lucky, this is a welcome return to form for Leigh.
Leigh’s film follows the lives of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a contented couple on the verge of retirement who enjoy life in a quiet London suburb. Not so happy, it seems, are the lives of the supporting characters as evidenced by Mary (Lesley Manville), a secretary and long-time colleague of Gerri, and Ken (Peter Wight), Tom’s boyhood friend. Surrounded by such needy people, Tom and Gerri inevitably find themselves playing the Good Samaritans.
In Gerri’s case, compassion comes with the job. A counselor, Gerri is introduced as the confidant of the morbidly depressed Janet (Imelda Staunton) who has trouble sleeping. The opening scene sets an intriguing tone for the film as the contented try manfully, and sometimes reluctantly, to support the downtrodden.
Enter Mary. Middle-aged, reluctantly single and living in a ‘poky rented flat’ on her own, Mary finds solace in several glasses of wine and the prospect of buying a car to get away from it all. Spring (the film is broken down into four seasons) finds Tom and Gerri in good cheer as they play host to Mary whose woes begin to surface.
Summer promptly arrives as does Ken who, it soon becomes apparent, unhappy too. Drowning his loneliness in booze Ken attempts to woo Mary following a barbeque. Unsurprisingly his advances are rejected as are Mary’s own efforts to win the affections of Joe (Oliver Maltman), Tom and Gerri’s well-adjusted grown up son. That autumn, Joe brings his new girlfriend, the incessantly cheerful Katie (Karina Fernandez), to Tom and Gerri’s. Mary, again playing the role of guest, is quietly mortified. Her misery is compounded by a recent incident which appears to put an end to her driving days.
Mary cuts an increasingly desperate figure as winter descends. Without warning she presents herself at Tom and Gerri’s doorstep only to be greeted by Ronnie (David Bradley), Tom’s newly widowed brother, who has been invited to stay with the happy couple to help ease the burden of his loss. A fascinating scene follows as the two grief-stricken strangers attempt to make sense of their worlds over a cup of tea while Tom and Gerri, attend to their beloved allotment (a recurring scene throughout the film).
In its entirety, Another Year is possibly Mike Leigh’s most thought-provoking film to date since it raises an important question – are the unhappy victims of cruel circumstance or are they simply making bad choices by refusing to take responsibility for their lives? For Mary, whose performance steals the show, the latter is arguably the case, as hinted at by Gerri in the film’s moving final scene.
The strength of Leigh’s films lie in the colour and diversity of their characters who are brilliantly depicted by a formidable cast. Lesley Manville’s performance as the desperately clingy Mary is frighteningly good whilst David Bradley’s portrayal of Ronnie is equally impressive. Ronnie’s monosyllabic utterances and permanently shocked expression are particularly enjoyable. Peter Wight gives a strong performance as larger-than-life Ken, as do Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as the lead couple.
Together with Tamara Drewe and Made in Dagenham, Another Year has spawned another success for the soon-to-be-defunct UK Film Council.
Best scene: The eerie final scene
Best line: “I don’t really smoke,” says Mary (who then proceeds to help herself to a cigarette)
Best performance: Lesley Manville as Mary
Watch this if you liked: All or Nothing, Happy-Go-Lucky