Another Year
First screened in January 2011 / Most recently screened in December 2018 / Reviewed in January 2019
Director: Mike Leigh. Cast: Ruth Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Oliver Maltman, Peter Wight, Karina Fernandez, David Bradley, Martin Savage, Imelda Staunton, Michele Austin, Phil Davis, Eileen Davies, Mary Jo Randle, Ben Roberts. Screenplay: Mike Leigh.

Twitter Capsule: (2011) Dotted with contrivances and over-emphases, but pivots fascinatingly on a woman's inability to reciprocate generosity.

Second Capsule: (2019) My misgivings remain (four-season structure, Xtreme Manville) but its mortal chill and feel for the ordinary hit me.

VOR:   Subtly ambitious mix of coldness and generosity, in both the film and the characters. Rare, nimble focus on the space between middle and old age.

Photo © 2010 Film4/Focus Features
Another Year interests me now more than it did in 2010. Is that because it's the kind of Mike Leigh movie designed to get under your skin and acquire power over time? Or because watching this story in my 40s can't help but feel different from watching it in my 30s? Or because viewing it 20 years into my own relationship yields a fundamentally different encounter than even a decade of personal experience with couplehood could produce? Perhaps the film's peculiar tensions and liminal registers unsettled me upon its premiere, whereas now they mark it as quietly adventurous and emotionally specific.

Purposefully lacking the overt sweep of a Topsy-Turvy or a Mr. Turner, but not a self-conscious sketch like Career Girls, Another Year declines to present itself as a major or a minor work. Structured primly in four chapters as a season-by-season review, but with a curious, tone-setting prologue that defies this schema and omits all the movie's major characters, Another Year is both organized and elusive, appearing unsubtle or over-strategized in some ways yet always telling other stories than those being privileged in any given scene. Leigh has never felt more like Ozu but also rarely more like himself, returning to some of the stalwart talents in his on- and off-screen repertory company but pushing them in new directions. He sustains his career-long interest in human peccadilloes while indicating broader arcs of time and mortality that make everything—colorful personalities, stubborn conflicts, shared meals, self-inflicted crises—seem rather small.

Simultaneously a study of currents and ruts, Another Year technically centers Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), whose decades-long marriage reflects an earnest, affectionate devotion, carefully tilled and tended. In defiance of most marital dramas, the movie invests neither in idealizing their union nor in exposing any rot within it. Over the course of the story, we acquire some sense of what compromises or boundaries are necessary to sustain this bond, in which their adult son Joe (Oliver Maltman), genially unremarkable, is both an indispensable participant and a bit of an outlier. Gerri and Tom each present as the most important figure in each other's lives. We glean this has always been so, but happily, we're not quite sure when we learn it, or how, or even if we're correct. Broadbent can sometimes give a hard sell to his characters; Sheen has been an asset to other Leigh films, despite a tendency to play both perkiness and arrogance with a slightly shrill edge. Both of them work wonderfully here in a less telegraphed style than they've employed on other occasions, playing characters who are harder to distill, their emotions somehow accessible and muted at once. The warmth they conjure between Tom and Gerri is as fundamental to the movie as the subdued palette and somewhat impersonal widescreen framings, which can make Another Year feel a bit chilly even amid merry scenes or more clement seasons.

As is Leigh's wont, Another Year stages multiple quotidian encounters that deftly enrich and complicate our senses of Tom, Gerri, and Joe while also introducing us to a small handful of other memorable characters. David Bradley as a brother frozen by grief for his longtime wife, Karina Fernandez as a sprightly love interest for Joe, and Peter Wight as Tom's hard-drinking chum of many decades all make strong impressions. That one movie can encompass such different spirits and affects as these three figures embody is itself a tribute to Another Year's expansive qualities, even as it seems narrowly conceived around a smallish coterie in a tiny corner of London. Some scenes go more or less where you expect, whereas others surprise. None imply any goal of making this couple or their community seem archetypal of patterns or truths that exceed themselves. Another Year's textured, non-histrionic grasp of everyday rhythms and incidents is what makes the film so special, more than the sum of its deceptively humble parts, even as Leigh and his actors imply what the longer arcs of these people's lives have been like.

Contrapuntal to nearly everything I've said is a figure called Mary (Lesley Manville), a sozzled, messy colleague of Gerri's who is deeply sad and just as needy; the former quality seems to anchor Tom and Gerri's loyalty and kindness toward her, despite the heavy burdens of the latter. There are so many ways one could characterize Another Year in ways that make Mary its pivot: as the story of a steady, soft-spoken couple both attracted to and repelled by a friend's extravagance; as a tale in which something quietly snaps within a tricky long-term friendship, demoting a patience-testing basketcase from friend to longtime acquaintance. It's a further credit to Another Year that these summaries feel flatter than the movie does. You actually have to watch the film to know, to feel what it's about, which is a quality too few movies have. Manville certainly conjures an intense expressivity as this louche, well-meaning, but careless woman, for which her brilliantly modulated restraint in Topsy-Turvy or All or Nothing hardly prepares you. Her work quickly became the most celebrated and most divisive element of the film, and I admit I count it as a weakness. Given how the story plays but also how Leigh works, it can be hard to parse the precepts of the script from the actors' own process of developing their characters. Mary's excessiveness, and Manville's excessive approach to playing her (which is not to deny the details in her work), are part of the movie's periodic table, intentionally disruptive of balance. The disruption is as much what Another Year is about as the balance, such that rejecting it can feel too close to rejecting the whole. Yet there are aspects of Mary's behavior, especially her heedless and seemingly helpless attachment to Joe, that would pose more interesting story points if they felt wrong to the audience and to the other characters without anybody being able to peg just when, or just why. More than feeling blatant, Mary's overstepping feels all too characteristic: it is very hard to imagine why Gerri and Tom have not put her on notice before, and it gives Sheen and Broadbent less to play. By the second half of the film, it doesn't feel coincidental that Tom and Gerri's most interesting, revealing scene happens away from Mary, as does her own, whereas actual contacts among the three principals start feeling broad and repetitive, boxed-in by Manville's outsized presence.

Admittedly, this kind of big-swing performance is what a lot of Leigh's fans like best in his work, allowing an actor to venture further than many other directors would allow and to find human-sized truths inside extreme behavior. If you love what Brenda Blethyn's up to in Secrets & Lies, you'll probably be just as taken with Manville here. Leigh himself appears to be, ceding her scene after scene as well as the movie's final, poignant shot. On the other hand, Secrets & Lies has always for me been about Marianne Jean-Baptiste's introverted eloquence, her distinctively downcast warmth, her braid of friendliness and aloofness. Another Year distills that quality and makes it the keynote to a whole film, from sound to camera to central duet. I think another actress (or the same actress, differently coached) might have found a way to play Mary as written, allowing her to pose the same problems to Tom and Gerri's equanimity, without making the movie itself, not just the relations among its characters, feel out of wack. But it's also possible I'm being too hard on Manville, because Mary is an indelible character, and more than that, Tom and Gerri and Ken and Joe and Ronnie and Tania and Carl and Katie are, too. This is a deep, smart, gently stirring ensemble, which even a vibrant but indulgent solo can't drown out. Grade: B+

(in January 2011: B)

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Original Screenplay: Mike Leigh

Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Best Actress (Manville)

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