In the idyl­lic eye of the storm

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Jonathan Richards For The New Mex­i­can

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.

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