Mike Leigh’s interest in exploring emotionalism and relationships in the context of class structuring has never taken a more pleasing form than in his latest film Another Year. That’s pretty high praise as I value his oeuvre more than most directors working today. It’s interesting to see the way Leigh evolves, moving from one intense emotion to the next. Before Year, we met Poppy, a blissfully happy woman, who made everything brighter. Before that was Vera Drake a complicated woman providing the illegal service of back alley abortions in London in the 1950s. And now we are introduced to Tom and Gerri, a happily married couple in their sixties who are at the center of Another Year’s story.
Tom and Gerri are happy. They’re satisfied, established, enjoying the life they built together. There’s no hint of any problems beyond the usual day to day struggles of life. Using Tom and Gerri’s life as a venue, their friends and family come in and out of their lives throughout the course of a year, an episode for each season. The two characters that show up the most consistently are Joe, Tom and Gerri’s son, and Mary, Gerri’s friend and coworker. These two additional characters wonderfully remind us of both the hope and the despair the idea of the future can elicit. For Mary, it honestly could be too late to achieve a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction, feeling very much alone in the world. For Joe, it is yet to be determined at the beginning of the film where he’ll be headed. But it becomes pretty clear by the end, again, providing yet another fantastic comparison and contrast.
While there are differences in class in terms of finances, painfully illustrated as Tom’s family contrasts with the family of his brother when his sister-in-law passes away, it seems Leigh was more interested in exploring the distribution of happiness. We’re often reminded throughout the film that the characters, more or less, started out on even ground. Gerri goes so far to mention that they’re all ‘graduates.’ But life was kind to some of them, and very unkind to others. The ending, which I will say is one of the best of 2010, is frighteningly inconclusive, and we’re meant, like all of Leigh’s films are designed, to be saddled with some very heavy and introspective questions.
Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen play Tom and Gerri. Their performances are quiet but with subtleties done so well, the likes of them are not often seen. Leslie Manville who plays Mary with a heart-wrenching performance that requires a consistently painful level of awareness of the lack of self-esteem, as well as a considerable amount of humiliation, as Mary often drinks too much and sometimes can’t reel in her stronger emotions (including jealousy). It’s an over the top performance which could have benefited from toning down. The star of the show is, of course, the writing. It’s no surprise the script has been nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar (although the likelihood of it winning are slim against the likes of The Kids are All Right and The King’s Speech). Leigh’s ability to structure these rather dramatic stories into such normal and average, everyday life situations is remarkable. The dialog is easy and relaxed, and it feels authentic.
As mentioned before, the ending is perfect. But it’s not easy. It’s devastating and difficult to digest, especially considering what Leigh might just be saying: happiness is not always given to the deserving.