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Another Year (2010)

January 29, 2011

written by: Mike Leigh
produced by: Georgina Lowe
directed by: Mike Leigh
rated PG-13 (for some language)
129 min.
U.S. release date: December 29, 2010 & January 14, 2011 (limited)
It has become obvious after watching the films of British writer and director Mike Leigh over the years that he is a gift to actors. He will often work with the same actors, providing them with roles that brim with depth and complexity. Leigh also takes time with the characters in his films, inviting viewers to get to know them as naturally as they live and breathe on-screen. They are often people like you or me as well as those we encounter each day, full of struggles and small victories, some are content with life and others don’t know what to make of life. “Another Year” has all those qualities and through awkwardness, hopelessness and happiness, we watch it all unfold in an absorbing 365 days. 
Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are a solid married couple in their 60’s who’ve been together since they were teenagers. They have been together long enough to face each other’s ugliness and love each other regardless. They tend to their community garden, enjoy cooking and drinking wine, and both still work. Tom studies rocks as a geologist to make sure building projects around London are safe, while Gerri works as a counselor at a health clinic. Both jobs offer beneficial services to society which is symbolic of who these two are. This mentality carried on to their only son, thirtysomething Joe (Oliver Maltman), an attorney specializing in difficult cases.  Of course, they would love if Joe could find the right girl and settle down, but they leave it alone.
Their patience and acceptance of others is continuously tested though by the friends that frequent their lives. Gerri’s co-worker, Mary (a brilliant Lesley Manville), is a nervous, fidgety mess who copes with her loneliness and the reality of aging by consuming an exorbitant amount of wine. Tom and Gerri do their best to listen to Mary’s hardships, acknowledging her woes. She’s that friend who annoys everyone else and means well, but in her own pain lashes out with bitterness, inflicting her misery on others. Like when she rejects Tom’s old friend Ken (a touching Peter Wight), an overweight alcoholic and kindred soul. She doesn’t want to believe that they are similar, she hopes to maybe get together with Joe. But alas, it’s hard to have compassion on someone else when you’re so focused on your own lousy life.
Leigh takes us through the year, matching the myriad emotions of Mary with the inevitable change that the seasons bring. Desperate for attention, Mary can’t help but to continuously impose on Tom and Gerri’s life. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find out that she eats all of her meals at their house and that her own home is the last place she would like to be. But Tom and Gerri know that if they cut off Mary completely, it will result in utter disaster. They can only move forward, accepting with open arms Joe’s new girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez) and hoping that Mary sees that their family takes priority over her drama.
“Another Year” is that rare film that gives us two main characters who really have no problems of their own. Their problems are the problems of others. They see the self-destruction others are on (something that’s not foreign to Leigh films) over a period of four seasons. Leigh uses that device as a metaphor to the situations that these people experience in those seasons. Emotions coincide with the environment as we see happiness and optimism in spring and summer, and sadness and grief in autumn and winter.
There’s an attempt to bring warmth into the harsh cold of winter, when we see Tom, Gerri and Joe come to the aid of Joe’s family.  His emotionless brother, Ronnie (David Bradley) needs help sorting out what to do after the sudden death of his wife and his angry no-good son, Carl (Martin Savage) is no help. It’s a stressful situation filled with family dysfunction that anyone can relate to, especially after death when it seems all the junk comes out due to guilt and unresolved feelings. There are some walls that are impervious to kindness and unconditional love.
Winter isn’t the first time we see festering anger portrayed openly and honestly. Leigh starts the film out with an uncomfortably riveting meeting Gerri has at work with a patient, a woman her age named Janet (an amazing Imelda Staunton), who is struggling with insomnia. She is like a wounded animal that could lash out at any moment. Gerri patiently tries to help her by asking questions about Janet’s life and family, but this cold and bitter woman is long gone, only wanted medication and to be on her way. Staunton delivers a tragic figure that sets the tone for the similar grave state that we will see people in.

It must be a joy for actors to work with Leigh as much as it is an audience to watch them utilize Leigh’s material. It’s no surprise that Leigh has a handful of returning regulars joining him (it’s a veritable Harry Potter reunion at that), who give exemplary performances throughout. Really, it doesn’t even feel like any of them are acting. They are just that real. Providing the foundational core of the film is Broadbent and Sheen, who make for an effortlessly seamless couple that convey a rapport that only years and years together can provide. It really is amazing to see two people make what some would consider an uneventful life, seem so fulfilling.
You know what else is fulfilling, seeing Leigh cast the film with average-looking people. He does it all the time, but still it’s rare to see in film. It lets us connect easily to those who look more like ourselves and the people we know.
In the supporting role that should win awards, Manville essentially takes the role of the pathetic protagonist that we care about. It’s amazing how she gives us an obsessive and borderline clinically depressive person and make her into someone who we want to succeed despite her repulsive ways. Again, that’s most likely because we have a Mary in our life. We don’t know what to do with her but it’s also hard to push her away too.
“Another Year” is a poignant and touching look at two ordinary people who we come to know are actually quite extraordinary. After reading this much, you’ll know if this film is for you. But if you think it is not, than you do yourself a disservice. Leigh is one of the few working directors who can repeatedly show us realism without it feeling forced. The film has a flow as natural and inevitable as the seasons it follows.
RATING: ****


Make no mistake, this is a film with sad and depressed characters, but Tom and Gerri are there to guide you through it all. They don’t have the answers to life but they know how to laugh along with it. And in turn, we are able to laugh as well as we reflect on our own lives and those we know. As usual, Leigh’s screenplay is really something to behold. Sure, his use of small talk and banal interactions is something followers of his work are used to, but Leigh is wise to let the actors communicate what lies beneath the worlds. Through awkward silence and words that are spoken under breath, we are reminded how the things that are unheard can be just as powerful as what is heard.  



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