At his best—like in 2008’s Happy-Go-Lucky—writer-director Mike Leigh can create richly lived-in portraits of London’s lower classes, utilizing an improvisational working method with such invisible dexterity that it sometimes feels like we’re eavesdropping on real-life situations that just happened to take place in front of a camera.
At his worst—like in Another Year—Leigh can be a self-indulgent scold, wallowing in the misery of his subjects.
Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen star as Tom and Gerri, a perfectly content couple headed into the back nine of middle age with few complaints. He’s a geologist, she’s a therapist at the local clinic, and both seem happy in their work. They spend most of their free time tending to their garden, communicating in the easy shorthand of two people who have been together forever and have already gotten all the important conversations out of the way years ago.
But sad folks seem to leach on to Tom and Gerri, perhaps envious of their stability or just aching for the hospitality of a home-cooked meal. Their home, with which we become very familiar over the course of this picture, at times seems a boarding house for self-pitying drunks. Don’t these two know any other happy couples?
The most frequent visitor is Gerri’s co-worker Mary, played by Lesley Manville with the kind of shrill showboating that people get excited about during awards season. After getting divorced in her twenties she’s navigated a couple of wrongheaded affairs. She now dresses a bit too young for her age and always downs at least two too many glasses of wine. Mary also never, ever stops talking.
She’s always babbling on and on about big plans for taking vacations, or perhaps buying a car, relentlessly insisting that she’s extremely happy with how things are going and optimistic about the future. Of course, the relentless chatter is obviously just Mary’s way of hiding her desperate sense of inadequacy and her crippling self-doubt. Unfortunately, Manville telegraphs this from her very first moments onscreen, and the performance has nowhere to go but in circles for the next two hours. Watch Mary get shitfaced, fall on the floor and bray about the married guy who dumped her so many years ago. Now watch Tom and Gerri nod silently to one another, politely putting her to bed. That’s just the first dinner party. Now rinse, wash, repeat.
Borrowing the structure from Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons, Leigh breaks the movie up into four repetitive chunks that allow Mary to embarrass herself in different weather patterns. But the gist of every story is the same. Sorry old drunk lady gets her hopes up over a silly idea, talks it to death and then acts like a petulant child when things don’t go her way. Most cringe worthy is the “Summer” segment, in which she’s deluded enough to think she’s got a shot with Tom and Gerri’s 30-year-old son, Joe (Oliver Maltman.) Another Year is not easy to watch.
Leigh’s marvelous Happy-Go-Lucky is considered, positivity, as an act of defiance, with Sally Hawkins’ indefatigable Poppy looking on the bright side almost as an aggressive way of sticking it to the miserable sods around her. Another Year is far less interesting, seeing Tom and Gerri’s contentment as a dumb luck state of grace. They tend to their garden and breathe sighs of relief that they aren’t as bad off as the wretched company they keep.
So is that all there is? Because over the course of this very long 129 minutes, this viewer’s patience wore extremely thin with the happy couple’s benign condescension. Broadbent’s Tom clearly doesn’t care for Mary, and makes a point of saying her name at the end of every sentence until it starts to feel like a passive-aggressive dig. Sheen’s Gerri merely tolerates her friend, often busting out the same schoolmarm tone she takes with her patients at the clinic. (“You let me down,” is her retort of choice.)
On the margins are other assorted grotesques, including a morbidly obese alcoholic who tries to put the moves on Mary, and Tom’s monosyllabic sad-sack brother Ronnie (David Bradley), who spends his days chain-smoking and staring into middle distance. Is the point Leigh’s trying to make that if you’re not lucky enough to be married by now you’re sentenced to live a pathetic existence of chronic substance abuse and dashed dreams?
There’s a frission of something deeper here, a suggestion that maybe Tom and Gerri surround themselves with these human trainwrecks so that they can feel better about their banal complacency. But Another Year never follows through on it, drifting off into another mealtime episode of Mary making an arse of herself. This movie makes me want to avoid my married friends.
Directors: Mike Leigh
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen
Running time: 129 minutes