Directed By Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh has a way of capturing human emotions and gestures that few other directors ever have the nuance to reach. A certain pause, or a glance, or a pan of the camera, speak volumes in the British directors work. In the shocking opening scene of Naked, we aren’t sure if the woman in the beginning is enjoying her sexual encounter to begin with or it simply turns at some point; Mr. Leigh enjoys those ambiguous lines, and his characters are often not characters as much as they are living, breathing human beings.
So chuck his latest, Another Year, up to the same category of his other greats, which include Vera Drake, Secrets & Lies, and his most recent work, Happy-Go-Lucky. The beautiful thing about Mr. Leigh is that while no film tackles the same ideas on class, gender, or existentialism, they are all presented through a clear and subtle way that no director can match. Part of that is Mr. Leigh’s highly-regarded process, in which he creates the characters entire lives with the actors before ever beginning to write down a script.
You can definitely see that process all over Another Year, which is basically set over four day or two day long vignettes in four different seasons. All four revolve mainly around the home of the perfectly named Tom and Gerri, played by Leigh regulars Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen. Tom and Gerri are the perfect couple in their happiness—they garden together, eat together, and seem to have got everything they need in life. Yet while Tom and Gerri provide the atmosphere for the film, a somewhat light-hearted and nurturing environment for whoever stops by their door in the suburbs of London, the real spark of the film is Gerri’s co-worker Mary, played with an electric ferocity by Leslie Manville.
When Mary first talks about her life to Gerri while sitting at a bar after work, she cannot stop talking about how happy her life is—everything seems to be going for her, if not quite perfectly, to a satisfactory point. The problem is that Mary talks a lot, and uses talk to hide from her truths, even from herself. Thus over the four seasons, we watch Mary go from bad to worse, and Ms. Manville transform herself ever so slowly, bringing almost a completely new woman to each world. Mr. Leigh’s camera shifts onto the human faces for the important reactions—none of it is showy, but all of it is necessary.
Yet to say Mary, and Ms. Manville’s performance, is the highlight of the film is to obscure the wonders that make up Another Year. Mr. Leigh rarely provides context, or does it very slowly, for each of the four vignettes, and each is filled with new characters that could easily have there own stories. There’s Tom’s old friend Ken, who’s overweight sight is only the first of many issues he hides under. There’s the son Joe, who is quite happy where he is, although without a girlfriend, something Mary at one point feels set on changing. And there’s Ronnie, Tom’s older brother, who simply seems to silently mock the world around him. Mr. Leigh brings these people on not as plot devices, but as ranges of human empathy and emotion.
If Happy-Go-Lucky was all about how we create our own happiness, Another Year is about how we foster happiness in others. The film could have easily put its perspective from Mary, but the majority of the film is about how Tom and Gerri respond to the accomplishments and suffering of others, and how to best foster those, just like their vegetable plants. Mr. Leigh, is interested in how people judge and be judged, even in a loving environment. And like the seasons, our views of both others and ourselves is always changing, always recurring, and always in need of the nurture of love.