Another Year Review

(3.5 STARS)

If you’ve ever read this blog before, you probably know how much I adore the films of Mike Leigh. He has an uncanny ability to take seemingly mundane material and make it supremely insightful and emotionally involving. The director’s latest, Another Year, is no different. On the surface, it’s a hodgepodge of moments during one year of a happily married British couple’s life. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a heartbreaking tragedy about lonely people who desperately cling to the stability of these individuals to make up for their own emotional shortcomings. Another Year is challenging cinema on multiple levels that will having you ruminating on it long after the lights have come up.

In typical Leigh fashion, the film follows a very loose narrative trajectory. Our principals are Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). Their marriage is one for the ages. Any problems they might have aren’t seen by us. Instead, they deal with the problems of their family and friends. Their only son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), is as well-adjusted as his parents, though he can’t seem to find the right woman for him. Mary (Lesley Manville), Gerri’s co-worker and friend, would love to be that woman. She harbors a very inappropriate crush on Joe (he thinks of her as his “auntie”), but Mary’s history of picking the wrong men sends her searching for companionship anywhere and everywhere. Then, there’s Ken (Peter Wight), Tom’s old college pal, who has undergone some personal tragedy and, to cope, has turned to food and alcohol.

Leigh presents the material in a very distinct and interesting way. As you might surmise from the title, the film covers one year of Tom and Gerri’s life by presenting four distinct, yet thematically related vignettes (one for each of the seasons). The brilliance lies with Leigh’s disinclination to wrap any story up very neatly. Ultimately, this is just another year like any other. Some things change, for better or worse, while other things—like Tom and Gerri’s love—endure.

Mary is far and away the film’s most interesting character. In the spring, she puts on this plucky, cheerful façade while she toils in a lonely existence. Only wine gives others a glimpse of her demons, but as the year goes on, and other characters go through life changes, she becomes an empty shell of a woman. It’s a stunningly honest and affecting arc, made all the better by the marvelous work of Lesley Manville.

Manville is definitely the best-in-show here, though her part is far showier than anyone else. Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent don’t have as much to do, but their strong chemistry is a necessity to tell the story well. Leigh has an uncanny ability to find actors and actresses who mesh perfectly, something the cast of Another Year pulls off in spades.

I’m so happy Another Year lived up to my unrealistically lofty expectations. I had a few reservations (like the slightly overlong “winter” scene), but this is one of Leigh’s best films and one of 2010’s most impressive achievements.

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