Whether you love it or loathe it, there is little doubt that Another Year will be a film that will stay with you long after the closing credits have scrolled by and you've ventured back out in the real world.
That's precisely the point of a Mike Leigh film, isn't it? The real world? Mike Leigh doesn't fashion films so much as he assembles poignant constructs of daily life. It is a bit odd to see that Leigh is nominated for an Academy Award for his original screenplay here, not because there's anything at all wrong with the screenplay - There isn't. It's just that it's well known that Leigh doesn't so much write screenplays as he allows them to blossom out of his months long periods of character work with actors. When an actor commits to a Mike Leigh picture, and at least most British performers jump at the chance, they are committing to an extended period of rehearsal, character development and the actual capturing of the final film. This is likely why Leigh's films seldom feel like cinematic endeavors - instead, they often feel like fly on the wall experiences for an audience allowed to glimpse inside the lives of people who represent the full spectrum of the human experience. One doesn't go to a Mike Leigh film to escape, but rather to be fully immersed.
On a fundamental level, Another Year is about happy people and the wounded people who surround them. Watching Another Year was much like watching mosquitoes move ever ever so closer to that light at the center of a bug zapper. Mosquitoes are seemingly drawn to the light, yet can seemingly never quite reach it. The same is true for the rather motley crew of friends and family who surround Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a peaceful and happy couple in their 60's who've either completely lucked out in finding one another or they are so completely affirming of life and all that surrounds them that you can't help but believe that whatever life would toss their way couldn't possibly shake away their happiness.
Tom is a geologist who seems to understand the ways of the earth that surrounds him, while Gerri is a counselor more attuned to the human spirit and all its quirks and foibles. In an American picture, Tom and Gerri would have been all lovey-dovey and picture-perfect romantic, however, the Brits tend to take a decidedly more low-key approach with Tom and Gerri's contentment seen more through the eyes of their shared experiences, understanding glances, comfortable body language and the sanctuary that they obviously provide for one another through their daily lives, the life of their son (Oliver Maltman) and their lifelong mosquitoes, 'er friends including Ken (Peter Wight), a once promising chap who has watched his world fall apart with complete and utter cluelessness, and Mary (Lesley Manville), a woman who seems like she might've once been a wonderful friend for Gerri but who has disintegrated into a helpless and hopeless drunk with no concept of boundaries and the word "victim" written so clearly on her forehead that one wonders how anyone tolerates her at all.
Perhaps what feels most glorious about Tom and Gerri is their genuine humanity, a humanity that can simultaneously care deeply for their friends while also growing weary of their repeated trials and tribulations. While Another Year doesn't really show us their history, one gets the sense that Tom and Gerri have arrived at their deep contentedness through a fully lived in life that has certainly seen its share of challenges met squarely on. They have always managed to find the strength within to endure, and while they unquestionably see that potential within their friends they also grow weary of seemingly always being in the nurturing role.
Much has been said about Lesley Manville's rather remarkable, if mildly over-the-top, portrayal of Mary. Manville infuses Mary with such sympathetic humanity that even in her most pathetic state, and it gets pretty pathetic, it's easy to understand why Gerri continues to call her friend and continues to hope that somehow, someway she'll find her way out of the mired muck of her life. It would be surprising if you don't know someone like Manville's Mary, even if you yourself don't choose to call them friend. While Manville may give the film's standout performance, the wondrous Ruth Sheen gives the film its heart and soul with a performance that is so grounded, so disciplined and so marvelously nuanced that you can't help but be drawn to her. Jim Broadbent is, as usual, the perfect cinematic companion for each and every character. Broadbent has an extraordinary ability to meld perfectly into everyone with whom he shares the screen, and doing so in a film such as this one requires far more discipline than one might gather. Broadbent's Tom is steady companion and father, patient friend, dependable provider and, when needed, fierce protector.
While these three carry the film, Leigh has always been blessed with the ability to cast even his smallest characters quite well and the same is true here. Oliver Maltman is slowly revealing joy as Tom and Gerri's bookish son and Imelda Staunton has an extraordinary opening scene in the film as a patient of Gerri's, a character that is so wondrously drawn that it's a shame she's never heard from again.
Leigh films are always modestly budgeted, character-driven films and the same is true for Another Year, a film that gets its title from, quite literally, this being a journey through the four seasons of a year for these characters. Tech credits are solid across the board, with kudos especially going to Gary Yershon for excellent, atmospheric original music and to D.P. Dick Pope, who seems to innately allow the camera to linger on faces and settings for just the right amount of time.
Another Year is certainly not a career best for Mike Leigh, though it's certainly one of his most affecting and memorable films and likely features his most vibrant characters since Secrets & Lies. Modestly flawed yet completely unforgettable, Another Year is yet another wonderful film from Mike Leigh.