Married couple Gerri and Tom have managed to remain blissfully happy into their autumn years but are surrounded, over the course of the four seasons of one average year, by friends, colleagues, and family – who all seem to suffer some degree of unhappiness.
Veteran British director Mike Leigh’s Another Year is the latest of his stock-in-trade kitchen sink dramas, though this time around, the sink is a little over-polished.
Pitch-perfect line readings, overly-rehearsed to capture real-time spontaneity, and a holier-than-thou middle class smugness emanating from the film’s central characters suggests Leigh has embraced and whole-heartedly revels in his stature amongst the British industry’s elder statesmen. Another Year may be his most accomplished work as a framer of images, such is the apparent ease with which he captures the interplay of his cast, but it may also be his least affecting study as a class-based character piece.
The film transpires over a year (broken into seasonal segments on screen) and centres on the well-to-do marriage of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), an aging but vibrant couple who live in a leafy suburb with a large yard and grow their own vegetables in a community garden. They kiss and cuddle and laugh a lot, always say the right things to each other and to those whose lives are blessed enough to intersect with theirs, and are secure in their well-educated, professional lives (he a geographical engineer; she a counsellor). Some early concerns about the single lifestyle led by their upwardly-mobile son Joe (Oliver Maltman) are dispersed when he brings home Katie (Karina Fernandez), an equally vibrant, well-educated, upwardly-mobile member of their class strata.
Tom and Gerri are welcoming of outsiders into their world, up to a point. As the year progresses, they grow tired and stoney-faced at the helplessness of their troubled circle of friends. Gerri’s co-worker Mary (a quivery Lesley Manville) drinks too much and yearns to find happiness as her youthful good looks dissipate, ill-advisedly focussing her romantic hopes on Joe; and Tom’s mate Ken (Peter Wright) lives on memories and wonders why life and love has deserted him for a younger generation. Only Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Radley), whose grey, lower-class existence grows bleaker with the loss of his wife and the arrival of his estranged son, and the ill-tempered Karl (Martin Savage), are deemed worthy of ongoing acceptance into their domestic sphere. (Though, both he and Mary are shut-out in a particularly sad and inconsiderate dinner table scene.)
It is these peripheral, socially-struggling characters that the Mike Leigh who directed Meantime (1984), Life is Sweet (1990), Naked (1993) and Secrets & Lies (1996) may have explored in greater depth. Another Year opens with the camera tightly-focussed on Imelda Staunton’s Janet, a depressed, resentful, frantic shell of a woman, sitting before Gerri’s medical colleague Tanya (Michele Austin), pleading for pills to help her sleep. The actress did her best work under Leigh, in 2004’s Vera Drake, but here she and her character are abandoned; she is little more than a fleeting manifestation of the director’s aim – to explore the varying degrees of love, happiness, regret and loneliness impacting everyday lives.
It is this commitment to theme over content that is the film’s undoing; Leigh’s favouring of symbolism rather than humanity in the construction of his characters keeps the real lives of his players so distant. Unlike Leigh’s best work, there is a false veneer of directorial intent that undoes all the good work of his cast. And there is some fine thesping, to be sure – Broadbent’s ebullient Tom and Peter Wright as Ken are standouts. (That said, Manville as Mary proves more grating than ingratiating, and Fernandez, playing to the hilt as the ridiculously perky Katie is, frankly, insufferable).
Mike Leigh’s best films chronicle the ordinary lives of ordinary people, but they are never ordinary movies. Another Year is certainly not a failure, especially as a technical endeavour – his work with DP Dick Pope in the blocking and framing of key dramatic moments is often exquisite. But the insight into the human experience that Leigh has made his raison d'être for 40 years is missing from Another Year.