Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Another Year

Directed by Mike Leigh
UK 2010

Mike Leigh’s customary blend of well observed, wonderfully acted human dramas are an acquired taste and "Another Year" is definitely not for Mike Leigh beginners. It's long, it's depressing, and has virtually no narrative. It would be difficult to imagine anyone calling it an enjoyable experience...

A stunning opening vignette features Imelda Staunton, as a coarse, unsmiling woman, tersely fencing off a medical counsellor who's been trying to get to the bottom of her insomnia. "On a scale of one to 10 how happy would you say you are?" the patient states briefly: "One." "If you could change one thing that would make your life better, what would it be?” "Different life" replies the grim-faced Staunton. This sets the mood for entire movie in which feeling of sadness is never really absent.

"Another Year" is an intimate drama about ordinary people: family-and-friends group portrait. Its central figures are Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a happily and longtime married upper middle-class London couple, who have entered late middle age content with their lives, fulfilled in their careers (he is a geologist, she a mental health counsellor), serene about the thought of imminent retirement and devoted to their allotment. Beyond some joking concern that their 30-year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman) is still single, they live in complete happiness. They’re also social creatures. They like to grow things, then cook and serve them to friends and relatives with a nice glass of wine. It’s their interaction with others that Leigh focuses on, mostly in their home, over their kitchen table. Together they form an island of sanity, stability and calm amid an unsettled circle of their friends, whose lives have not gone so smoothly.

Tom and Gerri's home has become a a place of refuge for lost and damaged souls. No one depends more on these two than Mary (Lesley Manville), a secretary in the GP's office where Gerri works, who's been a family friend for years. She’s single and unhappy, with a traumatic love history, but tries to hide her insecurity through talking a great deal, wishful thinking, delusions about her age and most of all alcohol. Mary emerges as the film’s great tragedy, the embodiment of Gerri’s comment: ‘Life’s not always kind, is it?’ She has made mistakes in her life - a bad marriage in her twenties, a failed affair with a married man a decade later - she has lost the most valuable years, now becoming more and more desperate, panicked at being alone forever. Her presence turns ‘Another Year’ from a study of contentment into a portrait of loneliness and longing. Mary tests the patience of both her friends and viewers, bringing us to the limits of compassion when she developes a somewhat desperate and hopeless fantasy of having a relationship with the couple's thirty-year-old son Joe, which cause her temporarily exile from their welcoming house.

"Another Year" is structured into four sections, each named after a season, each having its own particular narrative line. Different seasons are portrayed convincingly, from the bright spring and summer colours to the cold winter greys accompanying the bleak mood. It's a typical character driven film with very little to speak of in terms of plot. Through Tom and Gerri, as the year passes, we meet other characters. Some, we encounter briefly, such as Gerri’s depressed patient from opening scene; others, we come to know better. There is no climax, just passing of different seasons and people. Leigh warmly observes a married couple and their relations with family and friends. Apart from profoundly lonely divorcee Mary there is Ken, Tom's lifelong friend, who visits them every now and then. Like Mary, he's lonely and relies too much on booze. Later on, we meet Ronnie, Tom’s older brother, a quiet, bereaved man, a world away in experience and aura from his sibling, trying to cope with his wife's death and the emotional assaults of his son. Ronnie's affliction is a chronic inability to connect with people, evidenced in the monosyllabic miserliness of his chat.

But it is Mary’s plight that takes centre stage. Her inclination to drink increases, her tics become more visible and her behaviour erratic and distressed. She's superficially cheerful, but parasitically dependent on her friends, and putting a tragically unconvincing brave face on the awful way her personal life is turning out. When Joe brings home and introduces everyone to his chatty and easygoing girlfriend Katie later in the year, it’s almost like a slap in the face. Leigh shows how Gerri and Tom's patience with Mary is running very low after she become antagonistic with Katie. It’s not that Mary actually thought she and Joe would someday wed, but the realization that even the flirtation is now over has taken one of the few remaining elements of joy from her life.

The scenes featuring Mary are subtle. There are no operatic explosions of fury and anger, just awkward and uncomfortable exchanges. It is not easy to watch her, as she embarrasses herself, reveals too much and drinks herself into a stupor. Even Tom and Gerri have a limits of niceness. But it's to Mary that Leigh keeps returning with sympathy and without inspiring scorn. While not technically the lead character, Mary’s depression and declining state become the main focus, emphasized by the film’s incredibly haunting final shot.
I found “Another Year” an intelligent, deeply compassionate drama. Leigh says something about life that nobody really wants to believe: there is such a thing as "too late." Leigh depicts characters at the point in life when all the bills for all their mistakes are coming due, and he shows how sometimes there's just nothing to be done. Some problems can't be solved. Some emotional pain can't be alleviated, only managed.

To say that the film has no real plot is to miss the point completely. The characters ARE the plot. Another Year” is a film about regret, fear, loneliness and isolation. It's about depression, specifically late-middle-age depression, even though its two most central characters are, paradoxically, a long- and happily-married couple. Ultimately, Tom and Gerri, with their comfortable lives, serve only as the entry point to these much darker themes.
A little warning: the film does move at a very slow pace, taking time to develop characters. Some scenes tend to go on for too long. There are some light and funny moments, but this is by no means a comedy. It may not be everyone’s idea of a good time at the movies but sometimes powerful art is not necessarily comforting, entertaining, or relaxing to watch.

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