Monday, January 17, 2011

Movie Review: Another Year

Another Year ****
Directed by:
Mike Leigh.
Written By: Mike Leigh.
Starring: Jim Broadbent (Tom), Ruth Sheen (Gerri), Lesley Manville (Mary), Oliver Maltman (Joe), Peter Wight (Ken), David Bradley (Ronnie), Martin Savage (Carl), Karina Fernandez (Katie), Michele Austin (Tanya), Phil Davis (Jack), Imelda Staunton (Janet).

I’m not sure if Mike Leigh has gotten happier in the past few years or not, but his recent films lack the anger or misanthropy that was present in many of earlier films. I don’t say this as a bad thing - as I think his last two films Happy Go Lucky and now Another Year are among his best films. You will not find a more collaborative filmmaker in the world. He starts with a plot outline, and works with his actors for months in developing the story and the characters in it. As a result, his films all have the ring of real life to them.

Another Year stars Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as Tom and Gerri, a long time married couple who have the type of marriage I think everyone strives to have. After decades together, they are still in love with each other, and are completely at ease with each other. They can do nothing but work in their garden, and be at peace and contented in each other’s company. This marriage has an effect on everyone around them - who looks at them with a mixture of envy, love and perhaps even a little resentment - why the hell do they get to be so lucky and in love, when everyone else is alone and somewhat miserable.

The movie is essentially told in four parts - one in each season over the course of a year, as Tom and Gerri interact with the different people in their lives. Their son Joe (Oliver Maltman), now around 30, still single and with few prospects, but wants what his parents have. An old friend Ken (Peter Wight), a widower, now desperately alone, drinking constantly and still working at a job he hates. He is reaching out for something, but he doesn’t really know how to get it. Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley), who is cold and distant, but has just lost his wife, and has a son (Martin Savage) who hates him. And most memorably there is Mary (Lesley Manville), who works with Gerri. She is a woman whose life is in a constant state of emergency - he talks too much, drinks too much, smokes too much and refuses to believe that she is getting older, and will most likely go through that alone. She has unrealistic expectations on everyone in the movie - and her neediness will eventually alienate everyone around her.

Another Year has an unforced naturalism to it that is quite rare for movies these days. Many of the best moments in the film are the quiet ones - Tom and Gerri sharing a silent cup of tea while waiting out a rainstorm, and being completely at peace, the long, awkward silences that dominant the final segment of the film with Tom’s brother Ronnie, the quiet, embarrassed looks that are exchanged when Mary goes on one of her rants. These are the types of moments that cannot be forced - that can only happen when the actors know their characters inside and out. Broadbent and Sheen are perfect as the married couple - and provide the sort of calm, unyielding center that the film needs. No matter what is going on with the rest of the cast, Broadbent and Sheen provide that loving baseline that makes the film work. The entire supporting cast is excellent, but it is truly Lesley Manville who rises above everyone else - and delivers one of the best performances of the year as Mary. She is a woman who is incapable of hiding her emotions - incapable of keeping anything inside of her, and so in scene after scene, it all comes spilling out of her, in scenes that are at times hilarious, and at times completely heartbreaking. Her final scene in the film is one of the saddest of any this year, when I think she finally realizes that she is getting old, and is going to be alone. It is a nearly impossible admission for Mary to make to herself, and it breaks your heart to see this woman, so full of life, finally beaten down by it.

Another Year is one of those rare films that feel like real life. The filmmaker that Leigh has always reminded me of is Robert Altman, who excelled in making movies about large casts of characters who filter in and out of each other’s lives. Now that Altman is gone, it really is only Leigh capable of making movies like this with the same sort of attention to detail and character. Another Year is one of the year’s best films.

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