Tom (Jim Broadbent) digs holes. He does it for a living, as a geologist and land surveyor, and he does it on his days off, when he and his wife Gerri (Ruth Sheen), work a vegetable garden. It makes for a joke that the family repeats for visitors, as when son Joe (Oliver Maltman) brings his new girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez) round for a visit. When she wonders what it can mean that he “digs holes,” Tom explains: “I investigate the ground beneath our feet to test the feasibility of various engineering and building projects.” When Katie beams, “It sounds amazing!”, Tom smiles.
Katie’s enthusiasm is a bit too bright—she uses the word “amazing” a lot—and that makes her something of an anomaly in Another Year. Most everyone else in Tom and Gerri’s small circle of family and friends is low-key, like Joe or Tanya (Michele Austin), a doctor at the National Health Service clinic where Gerri is a counselor, or Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley). Appearing occasionally over the four seasons that provide the unsubtle structure for Mike Leigh’s film, these folks tend to illustrate the serenity of Tom and Gerri’s existence. They drop by for a meal, or, in the case of Ronnie (who shows up in Winter), stay for a few days at the couple’s London home. Their interactions are unremarkable, illustrating Tom and Gerri’s benevolence, which all assume and no one mentions.
The exception—apart from the slightly strained, too-happy-seeming Katie—is Mary (Lesley Manville). A secretary at Gerri’s clinic, she’s set up as their opposite: desperate and anxious rather than serene. A divorcee without children or—apparently—a family of her own, Mary comes by Tom and Gerri’s again and again, each time drinking a it too much, talking a bit too loud, and trying a bit too hard to share in their sense of contentment.
In part, Mary helps to reveal the elusiveness of such contentment, how difficult it looks for people who don’t have it. For some, including Janet (Imelda Staunton), such a state isn’t even imaginable: Another Year opens on her visit to the clinic, in search of relief from an ongoing sleeplessness. As Tanya gently questions her, right shots of Janet’s ruddy face show her incomprehension. She’s been like this for a long time, she reports, a year maybe. Her husband drinks, her life is hard, and she wants a prescription for sleeping tablets, unwilling even to think about causes or counseling.
Janet never appears again in the film, and you don’t know if she comes back to the clinic to speak with Gerri, as Tanya’s suggested she do. But her discomfort, her resistance and lack of self-awareness, provide a contrast for Gerri and Tom’s utter comfort, not to mention their admirable acceptance of imperfections in others. Though Mary insists that she values her “independence” during a conversation at a bar with Gerri, it’s clear that she’s also urgently looking for a companion, her eyes darting over Gerri’s shoulder at a man who looks to be alone. When she comes by their house one evening, wine bottle in hand, she seeks—too noisily and drunkenly—Gerri’s approval and confidence. Gerri accepts a blustery embrace and helps her into bed in Joe’s old bedroom, then snuggles with Tom: “My goodness, she gets worse,” she sighs about her friend. Ah yes, Tom nods. And one day soon they’ll all be part of “history.” Ah yes.
This note hangs over the film in other scenes, as when Tom’s old friend Ken (Peter Wight) comes for a visit during summer, then breaks down in tears as they sit in the backyard. Remembering how reckless they once were—1978 at the Isle of Wight—they agree now that “It’s the young person’s prerogative to be noisy.” Ken laments his current loneliness. “Most of my friends are gone,” he observes, suddenly given over to exhaustion and self-reflection. The next day, during a bit of golf with Joe and Tom, the camera stands back from their shadows, long and dark over the bright green course. Again, you’re reminded of “history” and life cycles and the quiet persistence of time.
As much as Tom and Gerri accept such cycles, Mary chafes and frets, her acting out like a punctuation for each season on screen. And if the film has a point, this might be it: if Mary’s escapades are mundane, she grants Tom and Gerri a visible contrast by which they might reaffirm their own okayness. When she careens into frame, Tom might point out where she’s gone wrong (her married lover was a “duplicitous shit”) or Gerri might decide not to speak with her for months. In these glimpses of the happy couple’s judgments, Another Year suggests they’re not quite so all-accepting and “perfect” as they put on. Still, they’re please enough with themselves.