There is never a guaranteed thrill quota, which immediately turns people off, but then that is precisely why fans are still attracted to every project that carries his name- he provides gentle narratives as a means to explore characters and relationships, and consciously renders a typical plot secondary as they are promoted to primary concern. This is certainly why I personally am attracted to his work, along with his legendary improvisation-heavy style that clearly empowers actors and encourages the kind of on-screen relationships that every other conventional director must cast envious eyes towards.
I do however, still find it rather unedging to arrive in a film whose narrative beginning is well before the cameras begin to role, and to leave before a traditional resolution is resolved. But then that is sort of the point. Leigh is the king of “kitchen sink realism” and real life doesn’t begin with opening credits and run to an exact time with easily definable acts or stages, so his films emulate reality. We are merely voyeurs, invited briefly into a universe that exists counter to our own (rather than being manifested for our viewing), so we can enjoy the character portraits, and the flashes of incident, without being pre-encumbered with a plot that offers expectations before sitting down to view (hence the rather poetic, entirely limited synopsis that accompanied the press information on the film).
This is, of course a hugely brave model to follow in the context of the wider film-making community, as it makes it difficult to market a film other than as “the latest Mike Leigh”. Another Year has little in terms of definable theme, it is on initial impression a typical Mike Leigh uber-realist snapshot of life film with no obvious narrative hook, the only identifiably recurring theme being the presentation of Gerri, the family matriarch counseling other characters, whether in her surgery, or at home, as her friends and family offer their various problems to her. But I have come accustomed to Leigh’s on-screen stylistic idiosyncrasies, and know what to expect, so I find an odd comfort in the non-comformist style and the slightly skewed caricatures, but sadly, I cant really see Another Year winning Leigh many newly converted fans, which is an enormous shame.
Somewhat predictably, the cast performances are flawless throughout, starting with an astonishingly good, and all too brief appearance by Imelda Staunton, who bristles, wracked with melancholy and apparent self-loathing as a patient referred to Gerri (Ruth Sheen) for counseling. Staunton’s purse-lipped indignance, and desire to be left alone to cope her own way, despite obviously suffering, is indicative of an idea that the title obviously exploits. Ruth Sheen is very capable on-screen though she is often no more than a conduit for her fellows to express their maladies, but her relationship with the excellently on-form Jim Broadbent is so believable (thanks to the months of pre-shooting improv together no doubt) that you might suspect they have been married for years off-screen.
It is Broadbent, and Leigh favourite Lesley Manville who deserve the highest plaudits for their performances, as they emulate the on-screen successes of Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky) and Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) before them, with Manville’s performance in particular as scatter-brained Mary, who has obviously deep underlying issues is brilliant. At first she appears as irritating as Hawkins did in happy Go Lucky, but the performance is a real grower as her underlying struggle becomes more plainly obvious, and she is charitably given some of the best comic moments in the film, easing the transition from annoyance to empathy. Elsewhere Oliver Maltman offers good support as grown-up son Joe, though he isn’t given the screen time or the focus of the other characters, perhaps as an indication of his self-imposed exile from the family home (through business and geography one presumes).
But despite the excellence of Broadbent and Manville- it is certainly they who will walk away with the heartiest plaudits- my favourite performance of all was that of Peter Wright, as broken man and childhood friend of Tom, Ken. He is purportedly a shadow of his former self, has put on a lot of weight and has allowed his body to disintegrate as his emotional state spluttered and crashed as his life became increasingly dead-end. He is the window into one sub-theme that runs throughout- coping mechanisms: even his T-Shirt tragicomically proclaims “Less Thinking, More Drinking” as he turns to alcohol to cope with his depression. And he is not alone, every character who relies on Tom and Gerri for emotional support have their own coping mechanism, whether alcoholic (all of Mary, Ken and Ronnie are seen to drink, though in different amounts) or otherwise, and even the happy couple themselves retreat to their allotment to allow the grime of their association with their struggling friends to dissipate and disappear.
Going back to the implications of that title, Another Year is about human endurance, and as I said about how different characters deal with their personal struggles, and just as Gerri offers herself as counsellor (though she more often than not only offers brief counsel), the audience too is invited to join in the process. I found myself empathising with each of the broken figures on screen, which is the majesty of Leigh’s achievement, especially with Ken, who struggles to find companionship but has made himself a difficult prospect to promote thanks to the lifestyle he uses to cope with his loneliness. Even almost stereotypically stoic Ronnie grabs at the heart-strings, his silence no doubt a symptom of the many years he spent with his wife, and now, robbed of the comfort of that silence that their relationship created, he appears alienated and tragic, especially when comically teamed up with motor-mouth Mary (the heartiest laugh of the film comes when she offers him a cuddle and his dismay is palpable).
More specifically, as the seasons change on screen, it becomes obvious that the film is not only about endurance, but about the ignorance of those who have happiness as to what it is like for those who do not. The happy couples, Gerri (Sheen) and Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Joe (Oliver Maltman) and Katie (Karina Fernandez) have no conception of what their floundering screen partners Mary (Lesley Manville), Ken (Peter Wright), or the recently bereaved Ronnie (David Bradley) are really going through, and their happiness serves only to worsen the others’ plight. This is of course unintentional, but Leigh paints it as an irony that the support they offer turns out to merely alienate those they support through proximity to their happiness. The only suggestion that Leigh ever offers for their chastisement is Gerri’s anger at Mary when she outwardly detests Joe’s girlfriend through jealousy- the anger is somewhat over-sustained, giving the impression that Gerri is a little callous in misinterpreting the severity of Mary’s personal condition, but it is so out of character for Gerri that it becomes a rather awkward moment in the film.
Overall, even despite the lack of discernible narrative hook (and thus a consequent lack of immediate saleability) and the fact that it is all too easy (thanks to excellent acting work) to sympathise with some of the more tragic characters, Another Year is another Mike Leigh winner, and I will be interested to see what the Jury makes of it at the end of the week. My prediction is that it just might walk away with the Grand Prize…