Friday, January 17, 2014

Another Year (2010)

UK, 129 minutes
Director/writer: Mike Leigh
Photography: Dick Pope
Music: Gary Yershon
Editor: Jon Gregory
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Oliver Maltman, Peter Wight, David Bradley, Karina Fernandez, Imelda Staunton, Michele Austin, Martin Savage

Another Year is deceptively soft, playing at gentility, filled with amiable middle-aged conversation and activities: urban gardens, golf, getting around London, having drinks with friends, cooking, visits, reminiscing. At its center are Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a comfortable married middle-class couple—he is an engineer, she is a therapist at a public clinic, their son Joe (Oliver Maltman) is 30 and established in a career.

It is their friends and extended family who tell the tale. In a strange twist, the bottomless compassion and patience that Tom and Gerri bear for these unfortunates come to seem a version of Oscar Wilde's painting of Dorian Gray, as if by some devilish deal their equanimities have been drawn from those around them in exchange for naked insecurities and neurosis. For that reason, the real stars, the full freak show, of Another Year are not the front-billed Broadbent and Sheen, but more like David Bradley, Martin Savage, Peter Wight, and especially Lesley Manville, who bring so much credibility and blinking force to the wretches they play.

It might sound a gloomy, dreary exercise but I don't think it is at all. It's my favorite kind of movie, talky and honest and focused on the relations between just a few people, though obviously it is also looking closely at unchecked depression. That's signaled from the first scene with the brief but remarkable appearance of a patient (Imelda Staunton) in Gerri's clinic.

The movie is structured around the seasons, starting with spring—nothing new there, but neatly handled all the way. All four sections build on one another, but each is relatively self-contained as well, as this tumble of characters and the complexities of their relations, and their longings, clarify.

The urban garden tended by Tom and Gerri is the visual punctuation to the opening of every season, except winter, where a death interrupts the usual rhythms. As an allotment of land within a city the urban garden is both natural and artificial, which is suitable for Tom and Gerri. While we're at it, the cartoony implication of their names, explicitly called out here at one point, is no accident either. It's the tension between the two extremes—the burnished enviable life of simple pleasures and self-satisfactions that Tom and Gerri appear to be leading and the extremities of their friends—that keeps Another Year constantly interesting, even suspenseful and harrowing in places.

For example, Ken (Peter Wight) is an overweight, alcoholic, divorced man approaching retirement. He is continually consuming, his mouth full more often than not, holding bags of chips close to his mouth, bent over his plate at dinners, pounding drink after drink of whatever is available, beer, wine, or spirits. He even smokes that way, chain-smoking cigarettes and inhaling deeply. His habits combined with his appearance are nerve-racking; you think the heart attack or stroke will happen any moment.

At one summer gathering, Gerri sits with Mary (Lesley Manville), talking about Ken. They are troubled by his behavior and appearance too—part of the genius is we feel it simultaneously with them. Gerri remembers him when he was younger and things were better. "Life's not always kind, is it?" she says, incidentally acting as if she has no idea of Mary's feelings about Ken. Is it real? Is it fatuous? Who are these people, Tom and Gerri? It is one of the great mysteries of the picture.

But we know their friends well, in a kind of horrible way. Ken is infatuated with Mary and Mary is repulsed by him. Mary has problems of her own, of course. It's arguable the movie is chiefly about her, and Manville's performance is another one of those that director and writer Mike Leigh is so good at wringing out of his players. Mary is a happy-go-lucky gone hapless woman suddenly in her mid-40s, toiling as a secretary, finding herself alone in life and stunned by the fact. She is vain, insecure about her looks and age, radiating it randomly in every direction. She cannot understand how this happened to her yet she is forever creating self-crippling episodes in her life, demonstrated across the story here with her decision to buy a car. She is psychologically dangerous, a woman desperate enough to do almost anything.

Leigh's experienced hand has never been more sure. He closes out many of the strongest scenes here by holding overlong on a final shot after the natural conclusion of a long take—not by much, just by a few seconds, but increasingly long deep into the movie, which sets up perfectly the remarkable final scene and shot, a long single take at a dinner table with the camera circling behind all of them until settling on its final image.

There are natural economies and visual cues he uses with the gaps of time to advance the narrative, which is inevitably circular and not linear. I think, ultimately, it thus becomes more a mood piece meditation, where resolutions only lead to further complexities, which has the virtue of comporting with experience. But Another Year is also a set of wonderful character studies, notably in Mary and Ken, but also in Joe and his girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez), in Tom's brother Ronny (David Bradley), and in Ronny's estranged son Carl (Martin Savage). Tom and Gerri may ultimately be the most opaque here. I don't consider them smug so much as lucky, and it's the kind of luck I would wish on everyone I know, including myself. That's just the way it is—another reason to like this movie very much.

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