In the idyllic eye of the storm
Another Year, relationship comedy/drama, rated PG-13, Regal DeVargas, 3.5 chiles
IMike Leigh’s movies have a lived-in feel, fueled in part, no doubt, by his MO of assembling his actors and letting them improv the hell out of their characters for weeks and months before he turns on the camera. In movies like Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, and Happy-Go-Lucky, Leigh gives us characters who seem frameless and unconfined. Another Year is just what it sounds like — four seasons in the lives of the people who inhabit them, lives that stretch forward and back with the same leisurely, unhurried feel.
The central lives of the piece belong to Tom ( Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a comfortable middle-class couple living in a pleasant row house in North London. Leigh may or may not have something in mind with their names, which recall a famous cartoon cat and mouse. (“We’ve learned to live with it,” Gerri sighs good-naturedly.)
Tom and Gerri are people you would love to know. They’re a married couple who truly like each other, who have grown through youth and middle age together without losing their closeness, who share a sense of humor and a sense of pace. He’s a geologist; she’s a therapist. They have a grown son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), a lawyer who does socially conscious work and whose only mild source of concern to his parents is that he hasn’t yet found the right girl and settled down. Tom and Gerri love their work, tend their plot of vegetables
in a nearby communal garden, come home and have a cup of tea, fix dinner, entertain friends, and finish each other’s sentences (or let them go with a smile).
In her practice, Gerri sees people whose lives are less fulfilled than her own, and she does her best to help them. A powerful early scene has her treating a deeply depressed woman, played by the remarkable Imelda Staunton ( Vera Drake). But nowhere is the contrast with Gerri’s completeness more evident than in her friendship with Mary, a coworker at the medical office where Gerri has her practice. Mary is played by another of Leigh’s regular company, Lesley Manville ( TopsyTurvy, Secrets & Lies), and it’s one of those astonishing performances that grabs hold of you. Mary is a kinetic, bubbly, girlishly gushing divorcée who drinks too much and dresses and acts a decade or two shy of her actual age. Her neediness is the polar opposite of Tom and Gerri’s contentedness, and their friendship is the most valuable thing in her life. They’ve been friends for years, since Joe was a boy, and she’s a frequent guest at their house. Tom and Gerri are fond of her, sometimes more so than others, and they tolerate her excesses in part because they know how good they have it.
Another lost-soul friend is Ken (Peter Wight), an overweight, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking chum of Tom’s from way back. Ken is such a pathetic creature that even Mary, similarly alcoholic, desperate for a relationship, and attracted to almost anything in pants, has no use for that particular pair of pants when he comes on to her. Mary does have her own inappropriate crush, though, and it strains even the saintly tolerance of Gerri toward her erratic friend.
Leigh has structured his movie over four seasons, starting in spring, when things are planted in Tom and Gerri’s garden plot and in their lives. Summer brings a flowering of plants and relationships, and so on it goes through fall and winter.
As the year turns to the bleaker months, events darken with the death of Tom’s sister-in-law. He and Gerri travel back to Tom’s hometown for the funeral, and when we meet his cadaverous, taciturn brother Ronnie (David Bradley, familiar as Filch in the Harry Potter movies) and Ronnie’s angry son Carl (Martin Savage), we see how long and rewarding a road ambition and education have taken Tom on from the grim streets of his childhood home. This is a chord that resonates with the possibilities of life for those who go after it with good will and are blessed with good fortune.
Feel-good movies are not a hallmark of the Mike Leigh oeuvre, and Another Year is far from that. The contrast with Tom and Gerri’s life throws into relief the agonized self-loathing of Mary and the other characters. Leigh holds his central couple up as a kind of ideal, like a happy family scene glimpsed through a window by a passing traveler, all warmth and light and everything the less fortunate would like their lives to be. They probably play games, laugh over dinner, and sleep in each other’s arms. That view through the window engenders not bitterness but a poignant dream — like the dream of the poor who cast their votes for politicians who support tax breaks for the rich — that someday, somehow, maybe this could be ours.