Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Another Year" is Well Worth the Time

Tom (Jim Broadbent) and and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are a lovely older British couple, very happy and content with a grown son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), who they see often. Both are still working, he as a geologist and she as a counselor at the local hospital. However, as we follow them through a year together, they seem to be constantly surrounded by unhappy people. Visiting friends confess loneliness and depression. Tom's brother Ronnie (David Bradley) loses his wife and is estranged from his son Carl (Martin Savage). The film is split up into four segments, one for each season, and Mary (Lesley Manville), one of Gerri's co-workers, appears in each. It's her interactions with the family that are at the heart of the film, her compounding failures and miseries presenting the starkest contrast to Tom and Gerri's happiness.

"Another Year" seems like such a simple film at the outset, a small domestic drama made on a very modest budget, that could easily be adapted to a stage play. The characters lead quiet lives, and the events of the story add up to a series of casual encounters and small events - a funeral, a dinner party, and a barbecue. However, there is drama in abundance, and "Another Year" leaves viewers with plenty to think over and debate. It's been fascinating to follow some of the reactions to the film, because the characters and events can be read in so many different ways. Is Mary, a lonely woman Gerri's age, a hypocrite for rejecting the advances of Ken (Peter Wight), a similarly miserable friend of Tom's, in favor of flirting with the much younger Joe? Are Tom and Gerri being cruel when they introduce Mary to Joe's girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez)? In the end, is Mary's friendship with the couple helpful or hurtful?

Lesley Manville has been rightly singled out for her performance as Mary, that needy friend so many of us have, who always seems to be in the middle of some calamity. Though she means well enough, she has unreasonable expectations and is unwilling to let go of certain illusions. All the while, she blithely ignores harsh realities - until they catch up with her. We sympathize with Mary, as Tom and Gerri sympathize with her, but there's also an underlying unease to the relationship as Mary's behavior gets a little more familiar and a little more desperate with each encounter. Manville's ability to play so many different notes and emotions, to make Mary everything from lively to seething to timid without contradictions is extraordinary. She reveals the extent of Mary's unhappiness little by little, removing a few layers of her defenses at a time, right up to the final shot of the film. And it's a doozy.

The rest of the ensemble is likewise very strong. Peter Wight and David Bradley turn in small, but memorable performances as two solitary men dealing with their losses in very different ways. Broadbent and Sheen complement each other well, and make a great screen couple. They get a few scenes, some alone and some together, to suggest that Tom and Gerri are fundamentally no different from any of their unhappy friends or relations. They may initially seem like a perfect couple, but can't live up to the image, and of course should not be expected to. Imelda Staunton also makes a great appearance as one of Gerri's troubled counseling patients in the opening scenes. She only gets a few minutes of screen time, but her presence helps to set the tone for the rest of the movie.

Friendship dynamics are such complex things, but it's a rare to find a film that tackles them so directly. Director Mike Leigh is an old hand with stories about uncomfortable relationships, having given us "Secrets and Lies," "Happy Go Lucky," and many more. His movies tend to be hit-or-miss for me, but "Another Year" is definitely one of the hits. I love that Leigh totally upends our usual expectations about the film's subject matter. Not knowing anything going in except the bare bones of the plot, I expected a more conventional, sentimental story about getting older, overcoming hardships, and enduring tragedies. There's nothing so straightforward going on here. Instead, Tom and Gerri do the best they can to support their loved ones, but find it's not so easy to share their own happiness, and sometimes their efforts just make things worse.

And despite the homey settings and a few nostalgic conversations, there's precious little sentiment in "Another Year." That's nice to see in a film predominantly featuring older actors, who too often get stuck with soppy, uplifting pabulum. Since the bulk of the cast has done multiple films with Mike Leigh, who is one of those types who uses the same circle of actors over and over, here's hoping they all get together in the future to make another one like this, say in another year or so.

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