Wednesday, 10 November 2010

'Another Year' review:

Mike Leigh's latest film, 'Another Year' starring Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville, is his first since 2008's 'Happy-Go-Lucky' (one of my all-time favourite films) and has received no shortage of plaudits since debuting in Cannes earlier this year. In France it was bested by the surreal Thai film 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives', which was preferred by the Tim Burton-led jury at the festival. However, 'Another Year' affected me far more than 'Boonmee' and moved me close to tears with Leigh's customary blend of well observed, wonderfully acted human drama. As always, even the smallest roles in Leigh's film feel imbued with real depth, no doubt as a result of his legendary production method in which actors fully develop their characters over time in extensive workshops and rehearsals.

Even when the dialogue doesn't seem especially fluid or naturalistic, as when characters continually refer to each other by name, it retains a feeling of realism due to the depth of the characters - who feel like fully formed people - and the brilliance of the actors. Lesley Manville gives perhaps the most obvious standout performance, with her emotionally damaged character Mary in many ways serving as the heart of the film, but Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent are equally good as the married couple (Gerri and Tom) around whom the action is staged. Broadbent is an especially warm presence and his masterful comic timing provides many of the film's funniest moments.

'Another Year' is typically a character driven affair with very little to really speak of in terms of plot. We observe a year in the life of an upper-middle class married couple living in suburban outer London in the years before their retirement, with the film divided into sections named after the four seasons with each one looking at a different episode in the year. Over this year they meet with family and old friends - not all of whom are as happy as the couple. As much as they try to help their friends with advice and support, the moral of the piece seems to be that we are all responsible for our own happiness.

The film opens on a close-up of a particularly solemn-looking Imelda Staunton, in a small role as a lady who is suffering from insomnia. She asks her GP for medication and an instant solution to her problems, but is instead sent to see Gerri, who works as a councillor. "If you could change one thing that would make your life better, what would it be?" Jerry asks. "Different life" replies the grim-faced Staunton, unwilling to take control of her happiness and accept that it could be improved. Then there is Tom's lifelong friend Ken (Peter Wight) who is in a self-confessed slump, and who has taken to binge drinking and eating out of despair. Tom suggests that they go on a walking trip together that Autumn, to do something fun and proactive, yet Ken remains silent.

That scene rang especially true for me, as someone who has similarly tried to counsel friends in the past, as sometimes there really isn't anything you can do - however much you try to encourage them. It is standard Hollywood truism that characters must change, and that the change must come from inside them. In that sense the film seems to support that model. Yet here no easy solutions are offered and the problems of Ken, Mary and of Staunton's insomniac are left unresolved. The film seems to support the idea that there is only ever so much you can do to affect change in someone else's life (at least emotionally). It is perhaps for this reason that Tom and Gerri eventually give up trying to council Mary, whose life is in perpetual crisis and who harbours a somewhat desperate fantasy of having a relationship with the couple's thirty-year-old son (Oliver Maltman). Ultimately Gerri suggests that Mary get professional help, now seemingly unwilling to take her work home with her (in more ways than one, as Mary is also a colleague from the practice).

That said, I'd hate to give the impression that 'Another Year' lacks compassion towards these lonely and depressive characters who it, in a sense, argues should take responsibility for their own misery. The opposite is true. Like Leigh's other films these characters are so well realised that it is hard for you to feel anything but wholly sympathetic towards them, even at their most self-destructive (and selfish). They are people damaged by circumstance, and the depression we see could just as easily apply to Tom or Gerri is circumstances were different. As Gerri notes to Mary, as she voices her disregard for Ken, "life's not always kind is it?" The empathy we feel for these people is played out in the film's ingenious final panning shot around the dinner table, which creates suspense and tension as we wait what seems like an age before we are allowed to see Mary. This shot is only able to generate suspense because by that point we are so emotionally invested in seeing how Mary is reacting to a dinner conversation where she is neither the centre of attention, nor an especially welcome guest.

As well as being poignant and emotionally affecting, 'Another Year' is also often quite funny. Perhaps the most enjoyable scene being one which beautifully contrasts Mary's self-involved and hyper-emotional world with that of Tom's emotionally numb brother Ronnie (David Bradley). Ronnie is a gruff Yorkshireman in whose dreary Derby house hangs a faded picture of Derby County Football Club - the fate of which Ronnie's life has seemingly mirrored, having lived his best days watching the team in its late-60s heyday as a boy, with his prospects less than exciting ever since. Having just lost his wife, days prior, Ronnie makes the decision to come and stay with Tom and Gerri in London for a while, only to find himself confronted by the heightened emotions of Mary, as well as her desperate longing for companionship. Not only does this scene subtly play on the North/South divide, but Bradley injects a lot of humour into it with his extreme lack of expression.

'Another Year' is another fine film by Leigh - and solidifies him as my favourite living British director. The only criticism I would level at it would be that Gary Yershon's score is quite twee in a way which doesn't reflect the sensibilities of the rich and genuinely affecting film it supports. Certainly one of the best films I've seen this year, it is a just a pity that jury in Cannes did not agree.

'Another Year' opened on Friday 5th November in the UK and can be seen at cinemas nationwide, including Brighton's Duke of York's Picturehouse. It has been rated a '12A' by the BBFC.

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