Directed by: Mike Leigh
Written by: Mike Leigh (screenplay)
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, and Oliver Maltman
Ordinary life is delicate business, or so Mike Leigh wants you to think in his latest film. Another Year and its cast of aging characters are both intimately familiar and lived in, and yet like nothing you’ve ever seen. Leigh shows us happiness at its most stable and misery at its most crippling, usually in the same scene.
He does this chiefly through Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a happily married couple who are used to each other and the joke that their names often bring out in people. Their life together, though, is something they take seriously. Using their house as a kind of fortress from sadness, Leigh takes us through a year in their lives and the lives of those closest to them. We begin in spring and end in winter; life to death. It sounds more dramatic than it is.
The story unfolds naturally, at a pace so deliberate that you have plenty of time to see what he’s getting at. As Gerri’s work friend Mary (Lesley Manville), stakes her claim in the couple’s lives, you begin to notice something. Mary is completely and utterly unhappy. She’s constantly on edge, and her many verbal and physical tics give away the truth when she brags about how happy she is. Manville’s eyes are bottomless pools of sadness, and her performance is so raw that it will haunt you.
Happiness was given to Tom and Gerri, but not to Mary. It’s taken away from Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley) and it’s found by their son Joe (Oliver Maltman). The big question is: why? Happiness is no laughing matter in life; some find it, and others don’t. What Leigh is getting at here is the allotment of joy in an individual’s life, and it apparently all comes down to luck.
“It’s not fair,” Mary remarks at one point about something completely unrelated, but the line sticks. As we follow them through the seasons, we see slight changes in all of the characters and shifting relationships. Mary slowly becomes too much of a burden and an annoyance as autumn hits that year, and is quietly left out of gatherings. Her borderline personality has her knocking at the door unannounced, only to have Ronnie, recently widowed, answer the door. She makes awkward conversation, probing about his wife and then desperately offering to help him out for a few days.
The one thing that doesn’t shift is Tom and Gerri’s relationship. Broadbent and Sheen are completely at ease in their roles, so much so that the movie’s meaning may slip by most. If it weren’t for their tragic friends, they may be completely oblivious to everything but the environmental problems.
Color palletes shift with the weather and the change of the seasons, each one evoking a different mood. Each season is both a stand-alone vignette and part of the larger whole. The spring awakens us to the main characters and their idiosyncracies, and moves us into the warmth of summer and the backyard cookouts. From there, things begin to die down. The most poignant scene is the one where Mary calmly loses her cool when Joe brings home a date. She’d all but thrown herself at him at a summer cookout only to never get a phone call. Her exile only makes it sting more.
Leigh ends Another Year with a lingering shot on Mary. The chipper conversation slowly fades away, and the mood suddenly fits the season of winter. She wears a gray sweater and a familiar mask of unbearable sadness. Both filmmaker and actress seem to be crying out “Don’t forget me.” At this point, it has become all too abundant that misery needs more than company. Misery needs miserable company.