Another Year, Another Mike Leigh film, another masterpiece. Early word out of Cannes was strong and Mike Leigh has been a consistent favorite of mine, but even with these built-in expectations the sustained emotional punch of Another Year was unlike anything I was prepared to experience. Not since Naked has Leigh so perfectly devastated me with his interplay of pathos and comedy. The trademarks are all there: aging British blue collar existence fretting away the monumental baggage of unfulfilled lives, top-shelf character actors such as Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville (even a cameo by Vera Drake herself, Imelda Staunton) and a largely improvised script injecting a lived-in naturalness to the performances. The vision of Britain is dour, characters are drunk or depressed or insecure or all of the above in the case of Mary, the mile-a-minute talker and wine connoisseur who leaches onto a co-worker’s family in her aged loneliness.
As much as Sally Hawkins’ performance as Poppy in Happy-go-Lucky was a go-for-broke spectacle, Lesley Manville’s Mary takes twitchy nuance to a whole new level. Despite a wealth of performances and character detours in the story, you cannot take your eyes off Manville, and come Oscars time if you haven’t heard of her already, you most surely will. Surrounding her are Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen playing Tom and Gerri the happily married couple that Mary orbits around with equal parts affection and jealousy. As four seasons are marked off in the structure of the film, using the gardening motif to emphasize each phase, we watch as Mary’s relationship with Tom and Gerri slowly disintegrates; the more desperate and awkward she becomes, the more they try and stand their ground. In addition to Mary, they also have to contend with Tom’s morbidly depressed brothers who in their own ways complicate the matters of an otherwise carefree family unit.
Leigh seems to be expanding on his interest in the chronic happiness of Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, here exploring what happiness in isolation can feel like, for no matter how unperturbed one’s married life may be, inevitably the outside world with all its complications find their way into your life, there is virtually no escape. Tom and Gerri do their best to be good friends, good parents, good relatives, but the strain is felt in every dinner table conversation, coping becomes the only recourse.
From the festival blurb I suspected that the main thrust of the story was Mary’s fixation on Tom and Gerri’s much younger son, Joe. While this element of the story occurs, its one ball of many thrown into this juggling act of competing sorrows. When Tom’s brother Ronnie is introduced late in the film as a grieving widow, a well-played blackly comedic detour occurs that is very much what Another Year is all about, the compiled grief of life that can ensue in the span of a year, the mostly lowlights that come unexpected and take on the narrative of your life. If you enjoy the comfort of being sad, GO. SEE. THIS. FILM.