Director/Screenwriter: Mike Leigh
By Marilyn Ferdinand
My mom was born in 1926 on the Near West Side of Chicago. She went to grade school and high school in Chicago, and moved to the Near North suburbs along with many of her friends and relatives in the 1950s. She and my dad still had friends from their school days, and after he died, she and her childhood friends became constant companions. She spoke to me about their quirks, especially Shirley, whose mind was starting to wander and who would repeat things over and over again and yell at waitresses for hot coffee when she finally took a sip only to find it had gone cold while she rambled on. My mother had some complaints about the people from the old days and her early days in the suburbs who had come with her into old age, but never was she discourteous to any of them, never did she think of giving them the heave-ho, and never were they less than friends.
You don’t have to be past 50 to appreciate Another Year, Mike Leigh’s most subdued, cohesive film in years, but it helps. My memory of my parents’ friendships has helped me internalize their values of loyalty and acceptance of human frailty, particularly as I get older. I sense that younger, Internet-age viewers may have a very different take on friendship, and much more difficulty finding the kind of acceptance my parents’ generation—and even mine—were generous with. I’ve seen a number of youthful film critics criticize the central married couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri Hepple (Ruth Sheen), as smug and condescending to their unhappy, unattached friends Ken (Peter Wight) and Mary (Lesley Manville). In my opinion, this view says rather more about the critics than it does about the characters. All I see are two people who have room in their hearts and lives for the people they have known for many years and provide them with a soft place to fall when life has dealt them the hard knocks Tom and Gerri have been fortunate to avoid by dint of luck, love, and commitment.
A deeply pessimistic note is set during the film’s prologue. A very sour-faced woman (Imelda Staunton) is having trouble sleeping and has gone to her local clinic for some sleeping tablets. Tanya (Michele Austin), the pregnant doctor tending to her, sees her obvious anger and depression. Tanya writes her a short-term prescription, but suggests she see a counselor at the clinic to get at the underlying cause of her sleeplessness. The counselor turns out to be Gerri. Gerri’s affinity for helping depressives may explain why she and Mary, an administrative assistant at the clinic, have remained friends for 20 years, all through Mary’s financially ruinous divorce and long-term affair and break-up with a married man. But Gerri has an energetic, partying streak in her, as evidenced by a seven-month trip she and Tom took from Australia back to England early in their lives and some hell-raising she remembers when talking with Ken; in the early years of their friendship, Mary would have been a natural fit for Gerri, and their bond seems genuine.
Because he loves Gerri and is an amiable person, Tom also befriends Mary, a frequent dinner guest and occasional overnight lodger when she’s had too much wine to drink. Gerri returns the favor with Tom’s old friend Ken, a civil servant who’d retire if he had anything to do with his free time, and whose gluttonous eating and endless beer guzzling fill the void left by his bitterly ended relationships and the deaths of his closest friends. He rails against the young people who have taken over his favorite pub, feeling as the aged often do, that he and all he values are being discarded and forgotten. Tom and Gerri try to remind him that they were once loud and obnoxious, too, to help him see that every generation has its day.
Leigh literally pushes the notion of “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” by dividing his narrative into the four growing seasons, beginning in the spring as Tom and Gerri plant their crops in a community garden and ending with the plow-over in winter. Other new beginnings in “Spring” include Mary’s decision to buy a car that she expects to change her life and Gerri and Tom’s 30-year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman) heading to Dublin to attend the wedding of yet another friend. “Summer” sees the birth of Tanya’s baby, and love is on Mary’s mind, as she rejects the good-hearted, but physically revolting Ken at a garden party at Gerri and Tom’s to make an awkward, understated play for Joe. Mary’s new life curdles fast in “Autumn” when her car turns out to be a costly fixer-upper and her traffic and parking fines mount up. Worse, Joe brings home his girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez) to meet his parents for the first time on a day Mary is scheduled to come by. Mary’s romantic disappointment comes out in extreme rudeness to Katie. “Winter” brings endings as Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley) and the rest of family mourn Ronnie’s wife Linda, the deep-freeze Mary has been in with Gerri since her rude behavior finally thaws, and Mary’s “glass half full” finally empties in a closing shot of her thousand-mile stare into the abyss of her sadness.
As is obvious from this synopsis, nothing terribly dramatic occurs onscreen, or offscreen, for that matter. The film is, to use Tom’s word, “inexorably” about life. Leigh and his actors have emerged from the months-long creation of their characters with rounded, relatable human beings. None of the characters got where they are overnight, and they’ll move forward inexorably as well. We learn their histories in bits and pieces, in remembrances, cold glances, a warm pat on the bottom. They have work they perform onscreen and talk about in their off hours: Mary, Gerri, and Tanya at the clinic, Tom at a building site where he works as a engineering geologist, Joe advising an Indian immigrant at a public-aid office. There is conflict, for example, when Ronnie’s resentful and long-absent son Carl (Martin Savage) comes late to Linda’s funeral and quarrels with his father and Tom back at Ronnie’s house. Yet nothing horrible happens—Carl rudely tells Linda’s coworkers who have come to pay their respects to leave and then flees himself, while Ronnie packs a bag and goes to stay with Tom and Gerri for a few days. The emotion of a funeral is there and real, but mainly in a dislocated, quiet way. Even Carl never gets very loud; he seems genuinely distressed in his prickish way.
Many of the performers, like Wight, Broadbent, Savage, Sheen, and Manville, have worked with Leigh over the years, and the family feeling of an ad hoc repertory company greatly enhances the deep emotional resonance of the film. Broadbent and Sheen work so harmoniously that one might mistake them for a married couple offscreen. I was particularly taken with their teamwork in the garden, perhaps reflecting on my own experiences with the hubby in our community garden. It all was so familiar, so real. Leigh’s regular cinematographer Dick Pope outdid himself in this film, creating an ambience for each season that strongly communicates the passage of time. In “Spring,” for instance, his camera seems to so capture the dampness and fecundity of the soil that I could practically smell the mulch and feel the relief of a hot cup of tea Gerri clutched to warm her from a sudden rain. Similarly, the first shot of “Summer” is a landscape of gold, with Gerri turning her face upward to gather in the sun’s warmth. Indeed, from the way she is photographed to the plush sweaters she favors, Gerri is a fully realized creature of warmth, a fitting flame for the rest of the characters to fly to.
Lesley Manville, however, really seems to be at the core of this film. That may be due to her fearlessly vulnerable performance that shines just a bit brighter than anyone else in the magnificent cast. Mary is infuriating, but impossible to resist. One wants to slap her for the horrid way she treats poor Ken, but Manville never lets us lose sympathy for Mary, a lost soul if ever there was one. My sympathy for her increased exponentially after Joe’s cruel treatment of her when she flirts with him at the garden party. He leads Mary on, agreeing with her that they “click,” playing a teasing sexual game about naming his body parts, and then telling Mary when she asks him how old she looks “…. 60 …. 70.” She assumes after he says 70 that he’s goofing on her, but her initial shock at “60” reveals Joe to be, as Katie says, a “dark horse,” that is, more cruel than his genial facade would suggest. This scene is a master class in acting, with Manville and Maltman hitting their beats with exquisite timing, Joe’s yielding impenetrability deflecting Mary’s tired feints and faded hope. The scene also encapsulates the indifference of time to the pain of the old and weary; Mary deserved more out of life, but time waits for no one, and youth will laugh as it pushes age over the side of the ark.
Films that not only capture aged adults moving off the main highway of life, but also treat them with good-natured sympathy are rare indeed—as rare as friendships that last a lifetime. I wonder what will happen to the ascendant generation that is so heavily invested in virtual friendships when it is their turn to move along. Whatever it is, I hope they meet up with some of the kindness and acceptance found in Another Year.