Director Mike Leigh and the cast of Another Year describe the process of creating their 'lived-in’ characters.
28 Jan 2011 - 2:46 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

Mike Leigh's Another Year is an elegy to the passing of time. Shaped by the seasons, the film maps a year in the life of one couple, Gerri (Ruth Sheen) and Tom (Jim Broadbent) and their close circle of family and friends. Medical counsellor Gerri spends her spare time tending her garden with her beloved husband, Tom, a geologist. On occasion their 33-year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman) joins them and laments that all of his friends are getting married while he himself doesn't yet have a partner. In the evening, Gerri's lonely colleague and friend of 20 years, Mary (Lesley Manville) visits for dinner and together they eat fresh vegetables picked from their allotment while Mary drinks too much wine.

Leigh describes Another Year as “About nurturing. It's about caring. It's about those who need and those who are able to, in various ways, give them what they want. And then it's the moral dilemma of the film of where do you draw the line. Where do you protect yourself?”

Several actors in the film have worked with Leigh before. Lesley Manville is Leigh's most frequent collaborator, having appeared in Secrets and Lies (1996), High Hopes (1988), Topsy-Turvy (1999), All or Nothing (2002) and Vera Drake (2004). Another Year is Ruth Sheen's fifth collaboration with Leigh. Oliver Maltman made his debut with Happy Go Lucky (2008). Another Year marks the seventh collaboration between Leigh and Jim Broadbent, but the oldest actor in the cast, David Bradley (as Tom's elder brother Ronnie), is a newcomer to Leigh's circle.

Asked to reflect on Leigh's technique Broadbent says: “The actual way of working is very consistent and the basic structure remains very much the same.” “It has changed in the sense we have done it a quite a few times before and the process isn't a voyage of discovery like the early days. As we're older, filling in the back-stories takes a lot longer. [When] I was in my twenties the character was in his twenties as well. When it gets to sixty it takes a long time!”

Leigh is renowned for his extended periods of rehearsals and improvisation with the actors to create a shooting script. In the case of Another Year, this period extended over five months, during which time actors were introduced to one another chronologically. While the most poignant character in the film is Mary, she was not, as some may suspect, the character that initially drove the drama. Says Leigh, “As the chronology is always logical, we actually started with Tom's relationship with his brother, Ronnie. The first actor I stated working with was Ronnie (David Bradley) because he's some years older. Mary's relationship with Tom and Gerri is obviously something that has happened much later in their history. It follows the logic of their lives. Thus Mary entered their lives quite a bit further down the line, but while all that's being developed, Lesley and I were inventing this horrendous life that Mary was having.”

This intrinsic logic dictates Leigh's entire process, from development to post-production. “The job is to create a dramatic fiction, a piece of cinema, a finished piece of work that has a beginning, middle and an end,” says Leigh. “Hopefully it has meaning and will leave the audience [with] things to go away with, to think about, ponder, imagine, care about etc. The process with any creative piece of work is that you move forward, and as you move forward you distil and focus down and arrive at that thing that is contained in the final definition, the final frame of the piece of work itself.

“The film is not just about acting. It's about cinematography, editing, design, it's about the score, the final dub and mix of the film – all of those things moving it forward to its final destination, its distilled artefact. That's the thing that we've been moving towards. All the scaffolding has been removed. What matters is the thing we are left with. There's no question whether it can go on, and we're not interested in that. If it's going to have some currency of insistence, it's something that can go on in the minds of the audience.”

While Leigh is at pains to stress the entire filmmaking process, it is his unique and consistent way of working with actors that undoubtedly most affects the calibre of the finished film. “Over and above I can do things and go places because of the input and collaboration of all the actors which I wouldn't otherwise be able to do.”

It is the characterisation of the women in Another Year that is perhaps most spellbinding, with mesmerising performances by Sheen and Manville, whose portrait of the lonely and desperate Mary will surely be recognised as one of the most memorable on screen. “We all totally believe in what Mike does,” Sheen says. “For me as an actor, it's very creative, fulfilling. You participate in every aspect of the job. You have a say in their house, where they live, what's in their house. You have a say in their characters, their relationships. You have a say in the whole thing. You start from the foundation.” Manville agrees, saying: “We are making films about rounded people. They are nuanced and subtle. Working with Mike, the way we do, we are the kind of characters who are comfortable in our own private skins.”

Leigh's penchant for complexity is one of the reasons Broadbent keeps coming back for more. “The films that I enjoy seeing are films that reveal lives that I was unaware of and the complexity of those lives. If I see a sanitised, tidied up film, I don't actually learn from it. The joy we get is finding something that is more real and revealing to an audience. Something that they recognise that is perhaps something they were unaware of.”