Reviewed at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you?” asks a counselor, Gerri (Ruth Sheen), to an older woman who has been having trouble sleeping. “One,” the aggrieved woman (Imelda Staunton) answers with muted fury.
The scene works as a prologue of sorts to British director Mike Leigh’s latest intimate, funny and finely crafted multi-character portrait “Another Year.” While Staunton’s memorably irritable and intensely troubled woman is not part of the central story, Leigh foretells the terrain he wants to tackle in this opening scene: about those who are fulfilled, and those who are not, and the fickle ways of life that keep some people from happiness.
Gerri and Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geological engineer, live together in aged domestic bliss, tending to their parcel of a public garden over the course of the year. The story is told in seasonal sections, moving from spring to summer, autumn to winter. Gerri, sweetly good-natured (friends call her “Saint Gerri”) and Tom, always affable, offer moral support to co-worker Mary (Lesley Manville), a jittery rabbit of a lonely, single woman, who hides behind her life’s disappointments with a perky attitude and lots of wine.
The film is deliberately and distinctively low-key. Nothing really happens over the course of the year, but with Mary’s repeated visits to Gerri and Tom’s house, along with another visitor, Tom’s old friend, the slovenly and rotund Ken (Peter Wight), a quasi-conflict emerges, contrasting the emotionally-satisfied haves with the have-nots.
At an outdoor lunch at Gerri and Tom’s house, Mary stumbles in embarrassingly late and proceeds quickly to the nearest bottle of wine, and then aggressively flirts with Gerri and Tom’s single adult son Joe (Oliver Maltman). Meanwhile, Ken comes across no better, limping around with a bottle of wine and a T-shirt that reads “Less Thinking More Drinking.” But Leigh works hard to humanize Mary and Ken’s pathetic states, showing them as full-bodied, fragile human beings rather than caricatures of the unfortunate.
In a later scene, in which Mary meets Joe’s girlfriend — and is obviously jealous of her young rival for Joe’s affections — Leigh skillfully plays the moment for both laughs and discomfort. Mary’s pain is palpable, and while we might chuckle as she wrestles with envy and disappointment under clenched smiles and darting glances, it’s impossible not to feel sorry for her.
If there’s a problem with this juxtaposition of characters, it’s that each of them never diverge from how they initially appear: one might expect fractures to eventually emerge in Gerri and Tom’s liberal-minded homey harmony, or Joe’s relationship with his new girlfriend to falter, or Mary or Ken to somehow show another side than the pitiable. But they don’t, leaving one to possibly long for more complexity, or contradictions, in the characters on display.
And yet, this is probably Leigh’s point — that what we’re seeing is just “another year,” as the title suggests, and the changes that occur in that time span are rarely profound. (Though the winter sequence includes a life-changing event, it is not one experienced by the protagonists.) Rather, Leigh wants to examine the experience of lives, both full and empty. And while that may sound anticlimactic, by the film’s last simple, melancholy frame and fade out, the director suggests, perhaps, that’s all a movie really needs.
is currently without U.S. distribution was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for release later this year.
[Photos: “Another Year,” Film4, 2010]