2010 // UK // Mike Leigh // March 19, 2010 // Theatrical Print (Plaza Frontenac Theater)
One of the central pleasures of a Mike Leigh film is the intensity of the emotion that lurks behind the most banal human interactions. The filmmaker's masterful writing and nuanced command of his performers--not to mention his talent for selecting the right performers--enables him to render with intimidating accuracy the psychological anguishes of the human experience. So it is with Leigh's latest, Another Year, a grim and amusing turn-of-the-years portrait. The film's matched lodestones are geological engineer Tom (Jim Broadbent) and therapist Gerry (Ruth Sheen), an affable, contented married couple living out their autumn years in a snug English home. We peer in on the pair for a couple of days during each of the four seasons, focusing on their hosting duties for a succession of friends, family, and colleagues. These gatherings usually include a heroic quantity of wine, plenty of kindly jabs, and a nasty, awkward moment or three.
Another Year shares more than a little thematic territory with the director's previous effort, Happy-Go-Lucky, in that both films are concerned with the nature of joy and with the virulent way that negativity rots people from within. Both films are also brilliant examples of Leigh's talent for what I can only term "social anxiety drama." As omniscient observers guided by Leigh's direction, we have a tingling awareness of the ways in which the story's social situations are likely to boil over into confrontation and unpleasantness. In this film, the analogue to Happy-Go-Lucky's resentful, tightly-wound driving instructor Scott is Gerry's co-worker Mary (Lesley Manville), a fifty-ish party girl who appears pleasant enough at the outset, but is gradually revealed as a shrill headcase. Of course, we never know exactly how events will play out, or what Leigh will choose to reveal or obscure, and as such the unspooling of the story remains a gratifyingly searing experience, despite the fuzzy English tone. Unlike Happy-Go-Lucky, which was held aloft primarily by Sally Hawkins' luminous performance, Another Year is a equitable ensemble piece. It even makes time for peripheral characters who serve as counterpoints to the primary narrative, such as the wretchedly depressed housewife (Imelda Staunton) under Gerry's treatment. A rich, sad, and marvelous film from beginning to end.