- Rated PG-13
- Buy the BD
All photos © Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by Bob Westal
here are happy people and there are miserable people. What makes some of us a member of one group or the other was the topic of UK director Mike Leigh's 2008's "Happy-Go-Lucky." That realistic comedy pitted a charming but ridiculously upbeat schoolteacher played by Sally Hawkins against a psychotically misanthropic driving instructor played by Eddie Marsan. Leigh's latest looks at a similar contrast, but in the context of friends and family instead of teacher and teached.
Civil service therapist Gerri (Ruth Sheen) is comfortable dealing with the most extreme sorts of human personalities while remaining calm and pleasant herself. Indeed, her low-key but assertive personality is perfectly complimented by her beloved, dryly humorous geologist husband of many years (Jim Broadbent). Even his name, Tom, is complementary to hers. They are, however, surrounded by an assortment of singletons that are in varying degrees of discontent. Their 30-year-old lawyer son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), is seeing his mates married off one-by-one and is starting to feel the sting of the extended single life. Tom's divorced chum from the old days, Ken (Peter Wight), is worse off. He's clearly sad and not afraid to beg for companionship, but his enormous paunch, heavy drinking, and unpleasant tendency to talk at length with food in his mouth aren't going to help him in his quest. Still, the real issue is Gerri's coworker, Mary (Lesley Manville). Relationships have been unkind to her, her youth is long gone, and she isn't handling it at all well. That's me using English understatement. Actually, she's a complete and total mess. That's still me using English understatement.
Broken up into social events over the course of four seasons, "Another Year" could have been titled "Three Increasingly Uncomfortable Dinners and a Brutal Wake." Each gathering brings increasing discontent, seemingly culminating in a post-funeral gathering with Tom's black sheep brother (David Bradley) and his insanely angry, blacker-than-black-sheep nephew (Martin Savage, in a memorably frightening turn). Still, Tom's problematic relations are a relief compared to the walking, passive-aggressive emotional trauma that is Mary. She starts the film as a somewhat worrisome heavy drinker, but with each event, she becomes ever more desperate, inappropriate, insufferable and pitiable. This is about as enjoyable to watch as actually being at a small dinner party with someone breaking down in front of you. I wanted to flee.
I would never say that all movies need to be "fun" or "pleasant" in the usual sense. At the same time, while I can't fault the fine work Leigh and his actors did in creating situations that feel this real and compelling, unlike his best films, it's unclear to me what benefit the audience gets out of the deal. There's no real catharsis here that I could see and, while Leigh actually goes out of his way not to be excessively downbeat, "Another Year" strikes me as a victim of its own success.
Leigh, who famously doesn't write his films, but instead builds each character from the ground up during a months-long collaboration with his actors, is almost asking us here what movies are for. We know they can be fun diversions and they can sometimes be art, but what is art and shouldn't it be mainly pleasurable too? Part of the problem is that Leigh's choice of subject matter is so universal for the middle class types who fill the art houses showing his films, it's going to hit a lot closer to home for his typical viewers than more typically "depressing" movies about more common tough topics. I've never been an impoverished drug addict or the survivor of genocide, but I have been to painfully embarrassing social occasions.
I'm actually inclined to take another look at "Another Year" at some point because it's possible I missed something cathartic or emotionally meaningful in a positive way. It's also true that there is laughter here, Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent make an entirely believable and humorous illustration of a happy, long-term relationship, and though I've focused an awful lot on Lesley Manville's Mary, she is but one character in a film full of interesting and believable people. Still, the Mary-centered sequences go on so long, so painfully, and so vividly, that the scene involving James Franco, his arm, and a dull knife in “127 Hours” might not be 2010's greatest award-winning cinematic endurance test.
It takes genius, experience and hard work to torture an audience in this way. Lesley Manville's Mary lures us in with some left-over charm from happier days, but as the film progresses and her self-destructive behavior worsens, the pain and neediness come right to the surface. There is no trace of acting in Manville's work, which is awfully close to the greatest compliment you can give a film actor.
Lesley Manville has already won a number of nominations and awards, including the Best Actress Award from the National Board of Review, and she will very likely get an Oscar nomination. She will deserve to win. If she doesn't, it will probably be because of the tendency of many to blame actors who play irritating people extremely well, as if they were those irritating people. Mary is infuriatingly self-involved but, for all of her faults, her circumstances are not completely fair to her, either. What I'm still struggling is the question of whether or not Mike Leigh, with his enormous skill, is being fair to his audience.
Two-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Mike Leigh’s latest movie arrives on Blu-ray with an audio commentary featuring the writer/director and actress Lesley Manville, a pretty standard EPK on the making of the film, and a more in-depth production featurette (“The Mike Leigh Method”) that rushes through a variety of topics like cinematography, production design, and Leigh’s unique process of working with his actors. Not a bad haul for an otherwise small indie film.