Another Year (PG-13)

Written and directed by Mike Leigh
Screening at FACT from 5th November 2010

Reviewed by Craig Kell

In the past twenty years, no British director has made such gritty and compelling films about the downturns of British society as Mike Leigh has. Since his majestic adaptation of Abigail’s Party to the small screen almost forty years ago, he has made some strong powerful films that reflect the struggles that his characters go through with their everyday lives and the situations they get into. But perhaps his biggest accomplishment has been getting the best out of his main female performers, who each play different types of roles whether they are happy, depressed or just a typical person. Once again he has pulled it off with another marvellous piece of film-making that combines grimness with subtle humour through Another Year, which plays over four different periods in a year, focusing on the same family and their friends who go through many trials and tribulations. All this is done in typical British fashion with the kitchen-sink element evident here again in a film close to Leigh's heart.

Set during the four seasons, the film introduces us to devoted middle-aged couple Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) who have been happily married for many years. Both have decent jobs as well as a thirty year old son named Joe (Oliver Maltman) who works away. In the first segment we are introduced to the careers of the three family members, with Gerri having the tough job of giving counselling to depressed people. However one person who is depressed but isn't looked at is her colleague Mary (Lesley Manville), who is also middle-aged but unlike Gerri, is mostly lonely with no husband or children, lives in a small flat and is an alcoholic. She yearns for the attention of Tom and Gerri, which is evident from her first visit to their house and is secretly bitter about how their lives have played out.

In the summer segment, Tom's childhood friend Ken (Peter Wight) visits the family for a barbecue. He too is an alcoholic, but his reasons are more obvious, as he feels alienated from the current generation and misses the good old days from which most of his friends are now dead. Mary again though is clingy to the family and also has feelings for Joe despite being seen as more like an auntie. That factor is more distressing for her in the autumn period, where Joe finally gains a girlfriend in kooky but happy Katie (Karina Fernandez) who is welcomed by the family but Mary is left bitter about the romance. Concluding the year through the winter story sees the family attend the funeral of Tom's sister-in-law who was married to his brother Ronnie (David Bradley), but the day is overshadowed by Ronnie's son Carl (Martin Savage) not caring about the tragedy. But the point of the overall film suggests that Tom and Gerri can keep supporting their despairing friends, yet knowing at the same time that their married happiness can only serve to mock their friends' lonely lives further.

The film is a story of growing old, with the small events that can make life either comforting or unbearable, but also allow companionship from others. The four different seasons of the film point towards a growing anxiety that it may in fact be too late for these lost characters - e.g. Mary, Ken - while the circular nature of the structure suggests that there is no real hope for those left unloved and lonely at the film's conclusion. All of life is there too, from birth (Gerri's colleague having a baby) to a funeral (Ronnie's wife) and marriage associated with the long-term, e.g. Tom and Jerri and future bliss (Joe and Katie).

Typically Leigh always seems to get the best out of his actors, with the women standing out better as they truly own the film. Ruth Sheen portrays Gerri as comforting with those feeling depressed around her but is also secretly irritated with her friend Mary's miserable personality and that type of role seems to suit Sheen. The main acclaim deserves to go to regular collaborator Lesley Manville who is perhaps the complete all round female character that Leigh wanted. There is a mixture of Cynthia (Secrets and Lies), Vera (Vera Drake) and Poppy (Happy-Go-Lucky) about Mary who tries to make herself feel happy and is attractive for her age but is clearly suffering the wasted opportunity that she couldn't take when she was younger, unlike Gerri. Her facial expressions tell it all too, from her disappointment of seeing a random man at a bar embracing his younger girlfriend, to her reaction of being seen as an auntie figure to Joe, who she clearly admires. Award recognition deserves to go to her no question, having starred in other Leigh roles. Nevertheless the men always contribute in their own compassionate way, adding to how great the cast in Leigh's films are. Jim Broadbent's Tom is charming and confident in his own happiness yet feels aggrieved at the failure of his friend Ken who struggles to come to terms with growing old. Ken is played by Wight with such devastation and fear of ageing, which pays dividends when he tearfully recalls seeing something which reminded him of his late friend. David Bradley also contributes another effective role as the silent individual who struggles to see sense following his wife's death. In Mike Leigh's world some characters never get happy endings, and this is thanks to Leigh's cracking script as well as a haunting musical score, which will probably be overshadowed by the brutality of the film.

But like most British films, you can tell when it tends to drag on. It requires a lot of patience to watch something which requires slow, quiet scenes with many silences and awkward moments which stretched a bit too far. I also felt that Leigh's treatment of Mary by Tom and Gerri as little more than a baby was very degrading. She is never allowed to help with anything, though this does not excuse her at times appalling behaviour, which is clearly rude on occasions, but the irritated expression on the couple's face when she invites herself round for tea (near the end) is a little selfish on her behalf. And having watched Leigh's multi-Oscar nominated Secrets And Lies recently, I was hoping from some of the hype that this film would be more raw and tragic. In some ways it was, but I felt more sadness watching Jack Duckworth's death on Coronation Street the other night then I did with this.
Many people - particularly those older than thirty - will sympathise with the story and understand that like the characters, they too can find themselves in circumstances that leave them fearing ageism. A gloomy story by Mike Leigh and fabulous performances from Broadbent, Sheen and of course Manville proves another year, another great British film!

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