When it comes to the legendary British social realist Mike Leigh, there is a stark difference between the man and his art. On the festival circuit, he has a reputation as something of a prick in Q&A sessions — mostly for (justly) shooting down moronic questions with sharp, unbridled retorts. But in recent films such as 2004's Vera Drake, 2008's Happy-Go-Lucky, and his latest, Another Year, Leigh displays a very different attitude toward the less articulate and socially adept. Among these films' many intentions, unquestionably, is to militate against faith in snap judgments.
Another Year may not achieve the critical acuity of Vera Drake, but it represents a bounce-back from the disappointing schematism of Happy-Go-Lucky. Although Leigh's films are the result of improv workshops with his stable of regular actors, the final products have a definitive shape. Only recently has that shape begun to seem overtly rhetorical. H-G-L deliberately introduced its heroine Poppy (Sally Hawkins) as an irksome, frivolous creature, only to unveil her cheery disposition as a reasonable response to an ugly world. Leigh effectively pulled the rug out from under us, all right — but the effect was too calculated by half.
His new film is much more nuanced. The title Another Year refers to one more year in the lives of longtime marrieds Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), whose easy compatibility and solid upper-middle-class life seem like precisely what all "people of a certain age" have been told they / we ought to be aiming for. It's a normal but somewhat eventful period, which Leigh's film breaks up into seasonal segments.
But the title could also stand for another go — another chance for Leigh to assay some of the same ethical themes he broached in H-G-L. We are indeed meant to warm immediately to Tom and Gerri. We see them navigating the social world with the wisdom of accumulated years. We see they've raised a kind, productive, handsome adult son (Oliver Maltman). Despite sharing the names of a cartoon cat and mouse prone to going medieval on one another, they're pretty goddamned perfect.
With agonizing skill, Another Year shows how Gerri and Tom become — or passive-aggressively install themselves as — an anchor couple around whom numerous sad-sack friends and family members orbit in abject misery. Tom's old school chum Ken (Peter Wight) is cripplingly lonely and self-loathing. Tom's older brother Ronnie (David Bradley) is a stoic type who's never made it above lower class, for which his drifter son Carl (Martin Savage) clearly despises him. But above all, we have Mary (Lesley Manville), a secretary in Gerri's office who has glommed onto the couple long-term as a kind of surrogate family member.
It is with Mary that Another Year performs most of its critical and emotional heavy lifting, since she is, from start to finish, a human embarrassment — almost impossible to watch as she willfully ignores social cues, tells endless stories, and makes cringe-inducing, unwanted passes at utterly inappropriate targets. Manville thoroughly embodies everyone's sad, awkward aunt from an earlier generation (non-lesbian division), the person who was passed over for a fully formed adult life.
But as with Poppy, what we discover — through Leigh's insistence that we try to understand such a character, rather than brush her off our pant leg — is that she merely represents our greatest fears. What if everything we said came out needy and wrong? What if we'd been severely unlucky in love? Or — a major point that finally throws "perfect" Tom and Gerri into dialectical relief against the people they pity — what if we were stuck in a different set of class opportunities?
In the end, Mike Leigh may appear a cranky old bastard. But Another Year — a humanist film through and through — shows that he's really giving the world some much-needed tough love.
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