Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Another Year

At the heart of Mike Leigh’s Another Year is the happy marriage of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and his wife, Gerri (Ruth Sheen). He is an industrial geologist and she an NHS therapist, both approaching retirement in an unremarkable suburbia. Leigh captures the gentleness, unspoken tenderness and friendship of a long marriage without ever allowing this picture to slip into sentimental sludge. With an acute eye and ear, all the minutiae of a contented marriage are examined: the bedtime hug, the shared mug of tea on the allotment as the seasons pass by, the humour and eloquent silences that weave through kitchen table conversations. Their years together have given an emotional earthiness to their marriage that finds expression in their kindness and hospitality to others.

All the characters in the film are linked in some proximate or remote way to this marriage. Tom and Gerri’s way of living becomes a kind of measure of happiness or illuminates the corrosive effects of solitude, the failure that some people have in finding a sustaining love in their lives.

The film opens with a menacing prologue that alerts the viewer to the themes that will be examined in the film. Janet is sent to Gerri for help with her insomnia and depression. In a tense cameo performace from Imelda Staunton, Janet's pinched features seem to be in a vice-like grip of self-loathing and terror. “On a scale of one to ten, how happy would you say you are?” probes Gerri. “One”, snaps Staunton as she bullies Gerri for medication to sedate her from the grim reality of an unhappy homelife. Even for those who are married, Leigh suggests, the consolations that Tom and Gerri experience are for others cruelly unattainable.

This is particularly true for Mary who works as a secretary in the same hospital as Gerri. Mary (an intelligent, brittle performance by Lesley Manville) has a manic, chatterbox personality that covers the “quiet desperation” of her private life. A failed marriage and a car-crash relationship with a married man has led her to invent an illusory love life, where almost every man she meets is encouraged to “take her out for a drink” and none ever do. Mary is a fantasist, trying to escape the ageing process and the prospect of a future spent alone. Her loneliness has turned into a bitter pool of remorse and resentment and only glass after glass of white wine dilutes the pain. When Gerri says, “Life’s not always kind, is it?” In Mary, we see the answer.

Tom and Gerri invite Mary to share in their life, to come in from the cold and find some warmth in their relationship. But, as the seasons that mark the course of the film turn, so Mary tests the patience of her hosts. Her behaviour chills the atmosphere in their home and their response to her becomes less accepting, more distanced. In this, Leigh explores the limits of kindness. Is there not some tough kernel of self-interest, desire for recognition in all our acts of kindness? Is a truly selfless kindness ever possible? Must there be limits and boundaries to our kindness? If so, how do we determine what those are?

Tom’s old university friend, Ken (Peter Wright) is also weighed down by loneliness. He is not the happy-go-lucky Northern bachelor boy but an overweight, chain-smoking, beer-swilling image of sadness. At a barbecue in Tom and Gerri’s back garden, Ken wears a t-shirt with the slogan “Less thinking, more drinking”. The irony, of course, is that the more he drinks, the more he thinks about his situation.

Another Year is a subtle meditation on the necessity of love in human lives and how "without it we remain incomprehensible to ourselves". But it is also a meditation that is full of Mike Leigh’s observational humour and generosity of spirit. Our human lives are complex, fragile, ridiculous, Leigh observes, but if our lives – even in their disillusionment, loneliness and mortality – are to be embraced then there must be something that we can hope for. Tom and Gerri symbolise that hope.

There are so many reasons to see this compassionate film but the main reason is Lesley Manville’s performance as Mary. It is heart-breaking without ever becoming mawkish, immediately recognisable without any lazy traces of caricature.

On Oscar night, when Sandra Bullock (or some other Hollywood starlet) stands up in her Armani Privée frock and says And the winner of the Best Female Performance goes to...the answer has got to be Lesley Manville.

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