Get-togethers leave some undone in 'Another Year'
Most Mike Leigh movies could be called “Bleak House.’’ “Another Year’’ deposits us inside another London home visited by the unsteady and unmoored. Like “Life Is Sweet ’’ (1990), “Secrets & Lies ’’ (1996), and yes, 1971’s “Bleak Moments,’’ to name but three of Leigh’s 10 semi-improvised character studies, “Another Year’’ is another frowning comedy.
Ostensibly, the happiest people in this rich, brutally sharp, astutely acted movie have chosen to share their lives with someone else. The least happy characters have been dumped or are widowed, and in their singleness have become socially stunted and, after a few hours and a bottle of wine, repellent.
Gerri and Tom (Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent) have been married for decades. They take nice trips around the world and work together in their plot at a community garden. Leigh often has them share the camera frame and sit or lay beside each other facing in the same direction (forward). She’s a social worker, he’s an engineering geologist, and in taste and temperament you might say they’re perfectly matched. They’re a brand of goodness: Their hands are frequently rooting around in the earth.
One evening, Gerri’s co-worker Mary (Lesley Manville) barrels into the house for dinner, transporting the kind of emotional baggage that can’t stay closed for two minutes. She walks into a social gathering and dominates it with her perfect blend of narcissism and self-pity (“I can’t afford to buy a car and take a vacation’’). Clinically, her self-pity is a form of narcissism. As she chugs from a wine glass and prattles on, in her comma-less singsong, about goals and petty or profound tribulations, all the energy in the room swings to her. She doesn’t hug, exactly. She clings, and the exasperation of others seems to intensify her nattering aloofness. By the end of dinner, Mary has already drunken herself silly. She overshares that she still hurts many years after the end of a relationship. It’s left her in ruins.
This woman is a must-avoid at parties, and, in putting up with her, you sense that Gerri and Tom feel good about their tolerance. Their hands are in human earth. But you also detect in Gerri, particularly, a self-righteousness about the virtues of marriage. She and Tom have an adult son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), who’s 30 or so and single. The three of them sit in a small shed in the garden, and after Joe reports that his dating life remains cold, Gerri stares off in another direction. It’s possible she doesn’t want her son to wind up like Mary. She certainly doesn’t want him to end up with Mary, who likes to ask for Joe, and flirt with him.
Still, Gerri and Tom continue to include her in their small gatherings. Leigh has broken another year into seasonal segments, and for all four Gerri and Tom manage to accommodate Mary, even after she tests their patience. As the film’s array of long faces expands, you realize that Gerri and Tom’s immediate circle comprises mostly sad sacks, whom they invite into their home but do very little to actually help. They’re narcissists, too.
Tom’s old friend Ken (Peter Wight) might be worse off than Mary. He’s an ashen-looking man who appears to be coping with the death of his wife by smoking every cigarette and drinking every can of beer in sight. His belly looks as though it might explode. In one finely orchestrated sequence in Gerri and Tom’s backyard, Mary winds up seated beside Ken, and you fear the worst. They’re two unhappy people plopped next to each other in Leigh’s emotional thesaurus. Of course, when Ken mentions even their most minor similar ity, Mary’s face goes longer and harder at the forced intimacy. Ken’s loneliness is a vulgar exaggeration of her own. She knows how alike they are, and it makes her both haughty and sick. Her misery loves company, just not his.
The beauty of the performances is how they’re modulated to show displeasure and unease while seeing to it that the characters the actors play have no idea how obvious their suffering is. Watching this movie might save Mary’s life, but she would die of embarrassment. Does she know she recoils any time she sees Tom display affection toward Gerri? I doubt Gerri and Tom would like what they see either. Do they know how their open displays of affection and liberal upper-middle-classness can appear smug and insensitive to the hurting, the lonely, and the less-well-off? Is Leigh pathologizing singleness? Is he pathologizing marriage? The oddly touching final sequence suggests the answer to these latter two questions is yes and no.
Leigh has found yet another way to express certain incompatibilities of class by framing them as emotional conflicts. In Leigh’s best movies — including 1993’s “Naked’’ and 1999’s “Topsy-Turvy’’ — the behavior, personalities, and motives of his characters are left to us to unpack and decipher. Over the course of two hours, some of them become people we feel — or fear — we know. Whether or not we like them is less important than whether we leave the film with them on our minds. And we do.
“Another Year’’ is the depressive answer to Leigh’s more manic “Happy-Go-Lucky,’’ from 2008. There the superb Sally Hawkins bravely, blissfully strode through London testing the patience of every man, woman, and child she encountered. The film felt, at times, like a philosophical experiment on the nature of moods, with too many obvious semaphores and stagy encounters.
The new film is less intellectually rigorous and built around a collection of feeling, full-realized performances rather than a single, polarizing one. Manville is Hawkins’s physical and emotional opposite. Hawkins sprouted. Manville droops. But Manville is also tasked with inventing a psychologically monochromatic portrait that feels alive and complex. Mary certainly knows how to make an entrance, and the daring part of what Leigh and Manville do with this character is tempt you to wish she’d soon make an exit. But getting rid of Mary isn’t that easy. There’s a little of her needy ache in a lot of us.