Thursday, November 04, 2010

Review - Another Year

The first character we meet in Another Year is Janet, and she is unhappy. When asked by her doctor to rate her happiness on a scale of one to ten, she doesn't hesitate before snapping back "One," with her misery evident in her uncomfortable, closed-off body language, and the tight grimace on her face. Janet seems utterly resistant to the idea that anything short of "a different life" could lift her out of her depression. "What's the point?" she asks despondently, "Nothing ever changes." Despite being played by Imelda Staunton, the star of Mike Leigh's 2004 film Vera Drake, Janet only appears in two scenes in Another Year, the second of which introduces us to Gerri (Ruth Sheen), the counsellor she has been referred to. After that, she leaves the picture never to return, and we wonder what has become of her. Did she keep up her sessions with Gerri? Did she manage to overcome her woes and turn her life around? Or did she slide further into misery and decide to end it all? Leigh isn't saying, but he leaves all of the options on the table.

Even though Janet plays a tiny role in Another Year, she seems to embody one of the film's central subjects, that of people trapped by their own unhappiness, unable or unwilling to change their lives, and finding it impossible to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This description might make Another Year sound like it ranks alongside Vera Drake as one of Leigh's bleakest works, and quite a comedown from his upbeat Happy-Go-Lucky, but it actually settles somewhere in between those two extremes, as it explores states of happiness and sadness and the gulf in between.

The lighter side of Leigh's new film focuses on Gerri's marriage to Tom (Jim Broadbent). This couple might have been together a long time, but they haven't lost the sense of affection and playfulness that has sustained their marriage, and they seem entirely contented with their lot. They also share a great relationship with their son Joe (Oliver Maltman), who seems similarly satisfied with life, and in no great hurry to change his single status despite his mother's gentle prompting. One of the great joys of Another Year lies in watching the way Leigh's characters interact, with their easy familiarity and shared sense of humour creating a convincing, warmly enticing portrait of a real family. Leigh uses this family as the anchor for his film and gradually introduces supporting characters who offer a severe contrast to their sunny disposition.

The most fascinating of these is Mary (Lesley Manville), a workmate of Gerri's and someone who has been a regular visitor to Tom and Gerri's home for many years. Mary is around 50, although she makes an effort to appear younger, and she is unhappily single, frequently drowning her despair in drink as she contemplates a lonely future. When Manville first appeared in the film, twitching and chattering nervously, I thought she was overplaying her part, but it gradually dawned on me that Mary is trying so hard to keep it together, and to maintain some sense of hopefulness, which is exactly what makes her such a heartbreaking character. Manville beautifully expresses the depths of her character's neediness and desperation, and she's devastating in those moments when she drops her forced chirpiness to reveal the sadness within. In a couple of awkward scenes she flirts with the friendly but clearly uninterested Joe when she joins the family for a summer barbecue, but we know she's destined to leave the party alone once more.

Other characters come and go in Another Year. There's Ken (Peter Wight), an old friend of Tom's whose situation mirrors Mary's, but who is even more pitiful as he eats and drinks too much and bemoans his lonely existence. Then there's Ronnie (David Bradley), Tom's older brother who is left bereft by the passing of his wife, and his son Carl (Martin Savage), with whom he shares a fractious relationship. The way Leigh introduces and then dismisses these supporting players gives Another Year a sense of life going on outside the frame, and the impression that we are only dipping into these characters' lives. Leigh frames his film as four snapshots of a year, marking the progression of his narrative by the passing of the seasons. The seasonal chapters are subtly delineated by Leigh and his regular DP Dick Pope through variations in tone, with the most dramatic of these switches occurring in the Winter section, shot in a grey, shadowy hue, and haunted by a sense of loss.

Generally, however, 'dramatic' is not the correct word to use when describing Another Year. Leigh tends shy away from major revelations and explosive confrontations, and instead the film works as an accumulation of details, with the director's camera always ready to capture the gestures, the meaningful glances and the awkward silences that define their relationships. This is the kind of film that only Mike Leigh could have made, with his thorough, character-driven preparation bearing fruit in an ensemble that appears to be fully invested in their roles. The director observes his creations with compassion, and Another Year is one of the most emotionally piercing and resonant films he has yet produced, climaxing with a masterstroke of a final shot that focuses on Mary as she contemplates her future. Again, Leigh gives us no clue as to what lies ahead for this troubled, hugely sympathetic figure, but with the despairing Janet still fresh in our minds, we can only hope and pray for better times ahead.