Another Year – A Review

11 11 2010

Another Year Mike Leigh

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the films of Mike Leigh. On the one hand, the 67-year-old director’s work is unique, intelligent and ambitious in a way that other British films often struggle to be. On the other, in films like Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), High Hopes (1988) and Abigail’s Party (1977) there always seems to be an uncomfortably thin line between characterisation and caricature, a line which the director, with his famous, semi-improvised approach to performance, seems too often to stray across.

So it was with bated breath that I settled down to watch Another Year, Leigh’s latest film, and a contender for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Another Year tells the story of a year in the life of Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), a happily-married, middle class couple drifting slowly and contentedly towards retirement. He works as a geologist, she as a counsellor; weekends are spent tending their allotment and cooking for friends and family.

Friends and family, it soon becomes clear, are both a burden and a blessing for the couple. Their 30-year-old son Joe seems to take the same laid-back approach to life as his parents, with no prospect of marriage or children any time soon. Their friends, by contrast, are anything but laid-back.

Mary (Leslie Manville) is a forty- or fifty-something divorcee who works as a secretary in the same medical practice as Gerri. Semi-alcoholic and silently petrified at the prospect of spending the rest of her days alone, Mary is drawn inexorably towards the warm hearth of her friend’s home, where she receives food, sympathy and, from Tom at least, some gentle, slightly mocking criticism.

Ken, played by another Leigh regular Peter Wight, is even worse. A boyhood friend of Tom’s and a confirmed alcoholic, Ken finds himself entering his autumn years alone, overweight and trapped in a dead-end job in Hull.

For both Ken and Mary, happiness is an elusive and a rare thing, and the kind of effortless, contentment that Tom and Gerri have in spades serves only to highlight their own loneliness.

Another Year Mike Leigh

Ciggies, booze and bleak moments

And so Another Year is a film about both happiness and sadness, and about the way that the one perhaps inevitably feeds off the other. The question of how much Tom and Gerri can, and should, help the various waifs and strays who turn up at their door is central. There’s no doubt that they’re both nice people, but nice people have their limits too, and can, we soon come to realise, be as guilty of unkindness as anyone else, by proxy, by error or by deliberate omission. The warm hearth of a happy family home, Leigh suggests, perhaps depends as much on exclusion as it does on inclusion; kindness towards others is always conditional, no matter how well-meant.

It’s never quite clear how much the couple are aware of this; whether when Tom says to Ken “What are we going to do with you?” he’s being kind, exasperated, a little bit unpleasant, or all three at once. As in the great films of Ozu or Renoir, everyone here has his reasons, and weakness and compromise exist side-by-side with virtue in the human soul.

 Another Year Mike Leigh

In fact this is, I would argue, Mike Leigh’s own Tokyo Story, a deeply compassionate film about ageing, the ties of family and friendship, and the gentle compromises and disappointments of life. For once, the director seems happy to reign in his performers, and allow us simply to watch his characters as time and the seasons pass them by. We see them at spring dinner parties, summer barbecues and winter funerals and get the feeling that what we’re watching is life as it is actually lived, as funny and as tragic and as messy as anything that might happen to us, our friends, or our family. Without underestimating Leigh as a director, it perhaps also helps that, at his age, the subject matter here must all be pretty close to home.

What else is good? Well, the cinematography, by Dick Pope deserves a mention, as does David Bradley, who appears late in the proceedings as Tom’s taciturn brother from Up North, in an icy, brilliant final section.

But, overall, this is Leigh’s film; and a subtle and wise film it is too. One of the director’s best, and one of the best of the year so far.

Another Year is out now in all good cinemas (and some crap ones too)

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