Plenty of Sadness, Plenty of Joy in ‘Another Year’

Mike Leigh’s Another Year opens with a convincing image of depression from a nearly unrecognizable Imelda Staunton as Janet. Her lengthy interview with a concerned social worker paints a bleak picture of life for this middle-aged woman struggling with insomnia. Placing this discussion at the film’s beginning crafts just the right tone for this understated character piece. This sequence only connects partially to the main story, but it reveals the world Leigh’s presenting. He’s not going to shy away from showing us pain and distress and won’t resolve these issues quickly.

The story revolves around a year in the life of happily married couple Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) along with their friends and family. Separated into segments for each of the four seasons, we see them working and relaxing at their comfortable house. Tom and Gerri are obviously in love and enjoy life, but life’s not so good for some friends. The most prominent example is the difficult Mary (Lesley Manville), who tries to hide her loneliness through drinking and giving a false positive impression. Well into middle age but looking a bit younger, Mary isn’t ready to accept her current state. She even makes a veiled play for Tom and Gerri’s son Joe (Oliver Maltman), who flirts innocently but isn’t really interested. While desperately seeking a connection, Mary’s still looking for love in all the wrong places.

After introducing us to the characters, Leigh focuses on a few everyday events in each season. For example, Joe surprises his parents by bringing home his new girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez). It’s an exciting time for the family and the young couple seems to fit well, but there’s one glaring exception to this idealistic moment. Mary happens to show up that day, which leads to a very uncomfortable scene. Later on, the family heads to the funeral for Tom’s brother Ronnie’s (David Bradley) wife. It’s a slow-moving, dour sequence, but it works because Leigh has built our relationships with the characters. Bradley utters only a few words as the quiet, shocked Ronnie, but he’s one of the most intriguing figures on screen. During the winter sequence, his low-key interactions with Mary are some of the most compelling moments in the movie.

Another Year includes plenty of sadness, but it remains enjoyable because of Tom and Gerri’s charming bond. They’ve developed a casual shorthand where thoughts are clear through just a brief glance or smile. Ruth Sheen is especially good at showing Gerri’s exasperation with Mary and others by just a quick look at Tom. Jim Broadbent (Topsy-Turvey) is a Leigh regular and has rarely been more engaging. Tom and Gerri are the ideal couple with a connection that the others wish they could have. Their relationship sets the foundation for the social framework of the entire group.

As Mary, Lesley Manville brings a tornado of emotions and stress into nearly every scene, and she sells the character completely. It’s not easy to watch Mary struggle and throw herself out there, but it’s rarely boring.

This Blu-Ray/DVD combo release includes several extras that give a little background on Leigh and the characters. Unfortunately, the special features (except for the trailer) are only the Blu-tay disc. “The Making of Another Year” gives a 12-minute overview of the production and the improvisation process. They didn’t begin with an actual script, which is Leigh’s standard way of working. “The Mike Leigh Method” provides a bit more depth about his shooting style and this film’s approach.

Also running for about 12 minutes, this feature includes comments from Director of Photography Dick Pope about his long-standing relationship with Leigh. Finally, there’s a feature-length commentary from Leigh that’s the most valuable extra for background information.

Although it charmed most critics, Another Year is the type of movie that draws mixed responses from audiences. The lack of a singular plot and the deliberately paced scenes turn off some modern viewers expecting a more fast-paced movie. I’ll admit there are some slow moments, especially in the early going, but Leigh’s confident, relaxed style sells the tricky material. He’s tackling serious issues of depression, loneliness, and the search for love, but it’s never heavy-handed. The main reason that Mary’s plight is so effective is because it’s not an easy situation. There’s no simple solution to her problems, and Mary’s personality makes it even tougher for her.

Leigh presents both the happy and troubled individuals in equal light and doesn’t judge them. These aren’t the types of characters we typically see on the screen, and his original, balanced direction makes their story intriguing.

RATING 7 / 10