Kicking up a critical storm way back in May at the Cannes Film Festival, British filmmaker Mike Leigh’s new film Another Year was hotly tipped to take the big prize: the Palme d’Or. However it left the South of France with nothing in the away awards, instead taking with it a pre-release buzz making it one of the most talked about arthouse films of the year, now released in the UK just in time for some awards consideration.
Leigh’s film follows a year in the life, over the four seasons, of happily married couple Tom and Gerri (yes its deliberate) and how their life which is filled with nothing but happiness and love is interrupted by a string of very uneasy, edgy characters who seek salvation in the life they have made for themselves.The key figure in their lives is Mary, a lonely alcoholic who is trying to find comfort in her life and attempts at igniting a relationship with Tom and Gerri’s son only to be let down and pushed out of their lives. Other figures include Tom’s brother, Ronnie, who loses his wife and a dysfunctional friend of the family who is even more of an alcoholic and on edge than Mary is.
Leigh is undoubtedly an acquired taste, his films are quintessentially very British and he never panders to an international audiences and requirements. He plays with characters and social observations which are more apparent and obvious to British audiences, moments of great detail which are more likely to go over the heads of other cultures but strike a chord deeply with us Brits. What is remarkable however about Leigh is how much his work has translated to international audiences, his films are often massive critical successes in the States and fairly profitable in the rest of Europe. Leigh has a niche market appeal that strikes chords with the arthouse audience.
He is an adept filmmaker and creating films which have a very acute sense of creating a scenario which is real, which is recognisable and which stops you from thinking you are watching a film. This partly comes from the way his films are made, there is no script, the actors work with Leigh individually and then come together and improvise the scenes. It puts actors out of their depth but asks them to concentrate on what the other actors are doing thus creating an environment which is filled with real moments. The actors play off each other and react naturally, they are characters but the characters are perhaps closer to how the actors really are offscreen in the more raw, emotional scenes.
In Another Year this is no different, if you love or admire what Leigh does, then the film will clearly work for you because as a character driven drama it is up there with Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake as his very best work. Commending it most are the brilliant performances from the cast, Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as Tom and Gerri play a wholly convincing married couple whose boundless optimism and general happiness seems out of place among most of what Leigh has done in the past.
Broadbent and Sheen are the safety net on which the other characters fall, they support their friends who are an incredibly dysfunctional bunch and lend them their happiness to make them feel better. Other critics have complained that their general bonhomie is very smug and self satisfied, but ‘its just nice to see a happy marriage on screen considering most of them that we see in films, including some from Mike Leigh himself, are in a terrible state of affairs. Broadbent is of course an affable and comforting screen presence and Sheen is as wonderful as ever, playing a wonderfully motherly figure.
There are also other great supporting performances from Leigh regulars including Peter Wight who seen previously as the detective in Vera Drake and the security guard in Naked, plays brilliantly the vulnerable Ken whose obsessive drinking tries to hide his rotten life. There is also Phil Davis, another vulnerable person whose wife is slowly slipping away due to ill health and sees Tom and Gerri as the ideal life that he never had.
David Bradley is fantastic as Tom’s stoic brother, Ron, he doesn’t say a lot but emotes so much from his gaunt appearance. Whose family have abandoned him but sees Tom and Gerri as his last resort and moves back with them following a huge family loss.
The standout performance however is from that of Lesley Manville as Mary, initially starting out as a supporting character, Mary soon becomes the centre of the film’s emotional core. On first viewing the film is much more about the happiness and wealth of a normal life, however when you begin to think about the film after it is much more melancholic and lonely and all this comes from Mary.
Manville exudes so much in her character, at first in the happier seasons of Spring and Summer she appears happy and busy, although this is clearly a front for her ultimate unhappiness and dissatisfaction with her life. This area of unfulfillment in her life comes across more clearly in the last half of the film in Autumn and Winter, matching the cold exteriors, her mood becomes very glum, very sad. Her lack of Tom and Gerri in her life a great impeachment on her life.
It’s much too early to be talking about Oscars and other awards, and Leigh isn’t exactly lucky in that department other than the BAFTA’s. If anything Manville deserves recognition it is a superb performance and to say it is without a script there it is true performing, the true embodiment of another character. She is thoroughly memorable and you leave the film with her in your mind, Mary’s desperation and plight is very much the main thrust of the plot.
The film also offers so much more to the audience, it is real and Leigh’s uncompromising camera moves in all the restrained emotional moments. It’s all about the subtlety, there is no melodrama and the moments of emotion are made all the more powerful by just the simple flicker on an actors face. The final shot is an absolute delight, where we finally become aware of something Leigh has tried to do throughout his career and defines here, that life is defined not just by tragedy but comedy as well and there is a fine line between them both. Another Year is one of the best films of this year.
Another Year is an extremely accessible and gripping film with beautifully observed character moments and outstanding performances by a superb cast, especially Leslie Manville who shines as Mary.