If you’re familiar with Mike Leigh, writer and director of Naked, Happy-Go-Lucky, Vera Drake, to name just a few, then you know that wonderful characters and naturalistic plots are what sustain his films. This also means that any explanation of his latest, and best movie (from what I’ve seen of his filmography), will unavoidably fail to do it justice. I’m still going to give it the old college try, and hopefully you’ll trust me when I say that this is a great movie.
The film begins with a fascinating cameo from Vera Drake’s Imelda Staunton as a bitter housewife, discussing her insomnia with her doctor. Simply seeking some pills to help her sleep, she avoids questions that might get to the real cause of her problem. Her statements about “needing a new life” and “nothing ever changes” might imply the film finds life hopeless, but upon closer examination you’ll see this just isn’t so.
Spending a year in the life of an aging married couple, with the friends and family that orbit them, does not sound enticing, but that is pretty much the extent of Another Year’s plot. Most the movie is characters sitting around drinking, eating and commiserating. No love affair. No major traumatic event. No real life-altering upheavals, just life. There’s a funeral, but it’s for a character we never meet. Basically, the more things change the more they stay the same. Life is cyclical. I know how clichéd that seems, but here it’s somehow refreshing.
For starters, Tom and Gerri, the married couple, are so sweet and so lovely together that you want nothing but to spend more time with them. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are so invested in these roles that you never doubt their affection, their kindness. They genuinely feel like they might be the most perfect couple ever. The way they interact is 100% believable, never feeling too pat and perfect. They are nice people living a nice life, mostly because they have each other.
The movie doesn’t exist simply to show us a charmed couple. Friends and family come in and out of the picture, serving as counter examples of the ways we live our lives. Tom & Gerri’s son, Joe, who is thirty and single but doesn’t really seem to let that bother him. An old friend, Ken, who is never without food or beverage in hand. I swore at any moment he was going to have a heart attack.
Most importantly there’s Mary, Gerri’s co-worker and long time friend. The second you meet Mary you know exactly the kind of person she is. We’ve all met someone like Mary before. Lesley Manville, in a truly magnificent performance, moves outside these familiar qualities, creating a character uniquely her own. Single and a bit delusional about her lot, she is twice divorced, recently dumped by a married man, dresses well beneath her age, drinks way too much and the best thing she has going for her, or so she tells herself, is the upcoming purchase of a new car. She spends so much time talking about this car, this thing, and it’s not really even important. But, she’s built it up so much that she equates her worth, her joy even, with a trivial object.
This is all familiar and real, but that doesn’t make the characters any less special. These people are all different examples of the ways we determine or gauge our own happiness. I don’t pretend to know exactly what the director is trying to say here, but I know I was enthralled by all of it. I found myself laughing uncontrollably one minute, feeling great pity the next, and sometimes consumed by the heartrending emotion of it all.