Friday, January 14, 2011

Another Year
The Discreet Condescension Of The...

Lesley Manville as Mary and Ruth Sheen as Gerri in Mike Leigh's "Another Year". 
Sony Pictures Classics

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Friday, January 14, 2011

Spring.  Summer.  Autumn.  Winter.  Seasons change.  People rarely do.  Mike Leigh's "Another Year" is a four-act character drama set over one calendar year in present-day England.  Several friends visit married couple Tom (a superb Jim Broadbent) and Gerri Bankhurst (an excellent Ruth Sheen), both at peace with the fullness of their lives.  Edging towards retirement, they are healthy, secure economically and empty-nesters, waiting for their only child Joe (Oliver Maltman) to get married.  Their friends Mary and Ken are among those visiting.

The source of my endless fascination with "Another Year", one of 2010's very best films, is its seemingly benign married hosts, who are as vain and surface as the harsh realities of their friends' situations allow them to be.  Tom and Gerri don't appear to have problems.  But look closely: they rarely pause for introspection even at opportune moments.  (Note: Both will be framed individually in mirrors during the film, mirrors they never comfortably look in.)  Gerri admits feeling guilty about Mary, yet her statement is very casually if not superficially rendered.  They, like some of us, imbibe alcohol to secrete their discomforts and anxieties. 

More interesting still: rarely are Tom and Gerri examined.  In this very subtle, carefully measured film they are the director's "presentation".  (They're doing "just fine", they gently insist.)  Mary attempts to unearth more about Tom and Gerri but to no avail.  When they're probed again it's by Katie (Karina Fernandez), a potential family addition, over dinner.  There, everyone finishes each other's sentences.  It's as if Katie's been family forever.  ("Your son's a weirdo!" she says.  By extension so are the son's parents.  The apple doesn't fall far from the tree -- in the very garden allotment Gerri, Tom and Joe are seen digging around in.) 

Jon Gregory's editing is appropriately fluid, bouncing through those dinner table interactions.  The same equanimity editing-wise is lent to a later but different interaction between non-surrogate family members.  Mr. Gregory's editing is one of the many great things about "Another Year", especially in a scene involving Mary and Katie during the "Autumn" portion of the film.  Alternating between rapid cuts and lingering shots -- all one-shot close-ups -- the level of tension is accentuated to the point of unbearable.

Mary's life has her perpetually dangling off a cliff's edge.  Drenched in self-denial and loneliness, she drowns in drink and anecdotes of her misadventures, "stories" possibly disguised as feeble attempts to be embraced as a family member.  She's a pathetic creature: truthful as a representation, dishonest -- or perhaps more aptly, hypocritical -- as a personality.  Hurting?  Like a maimed kitten.  Lesley Manville is extraordinary as Mary, who quietly hemorrhages emotionally.  Mary is awkward, devastatingly desperate and nail-bitingly needy.  Ms. Manville perfectly embodies "Mary, Mary, quite contrary".  And just how does her garden grow?  (Mary is asked: "Are you going to do something about your garden this year?", to which she replies: "I've neglected it, haven't I?") 

Lesley Manville as Mary in "Another Year".  Sony Pictures Classics

Ms. Manville's portrayal of Mary may feel exaggerated for its own sake, but it isn't.  Deeper turmoil hides behind her mask.  There's a cutting, feral nakedness to her character that bleeds out.  She's as vulnerable as honey about to be attacked by bees.  The beauty of Ms. Manville's work is not just in her keen awareness of her self-deception ("I don't really smoke", she declares repeatedly), but the jarring looks conveying her pain while she searches for truth in others.  We ache with her, identifying with her more than with her contemptible richer hosts.  It's a powerful performance from Ms. Manville, and her sensational comic timing makes Mary equally funny and unsettling.  With limited exception, Mr. Leigh's camera almost always views Mary remotely when with others, accentuating her loneliness.  Yet Mr. Leigh typically eschews overly stylistic flourishes designed to manufacture audience opinion or feeling; the well-acted character types (particularly Martin Savage as Carl) invite us to sort things out. 

Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent in "Another Year".  Sony Pictures Classics

Having seen "Another Year" multiple times, I simply couldn't let go of Tom and Gerri.  Both are troubled by Mary yet keep inviting her to visit, becoming chronic enablers of Mary's dependence on them.  Why?  There's an immense self-satisfaction and conceitedness about them.  They're disarmingly polite but condescending.  There's a nobility about their condescension, a dignity existing squarely within the off-handedness of their pitying observations.  There's pretention and high-minded contempt towards one guest.  In contrast to their guests, much between them is internalized.  Even so, Tom and Gerri are genuinely kind to their guests, but how do they really feel about them?  More importantly, how do they view themselves through the prism of those who enter their home?  These are some of the major inquiries tugging at the heart of "Another Year". 

And yet on repeated viewings I was sickened by these "nice" hosts.  At almost every turn Tom and Gerri gently patronize Mary, and by extension other guests, typically members of the lower economic strata.  There are knowing glances of quiet judgment that punctuate silences and these are repeated, becoming disconcerting. 

Tom and Gerri -- Mr. Leigh's not-coincidental names, like the cartoon characters -- are continual caretakers of others but have little substantive conversation amongst themselves.  They've been married for 30 very good years.  They talk past each other but communicate in the shorthand that long-term spouses do.  Who do they talk to about their own issues and concerns?  ("Everybody needs somebody to talk to", one character tells Gerri.)  Early on, there's revealing dialogue about geologists and their wives on the beach.  This speech arguably crystallizes who Tom and Gerri are.  We hardly know them.  Removed, they emote very little at all, and might in some professional circles be deemed unhealthy.

The director, who has looked at the contradictions of humans in numerous films including "Secrets And Lies" and "Vera Drake", allows this "flawless" couple to be a measuring stick for further dramatizations of (and emphases on) not-so fortunate, more imperfect characters.  Mr. Leigh, as he often does, resists advertising characters' motivations, achieving maximum mileage from improvisation.  Are Tom and Gerri really that much different from their friends?  "Another Year" is so disciplined and pedestrian that it sneaks up on you and drops a cold dose of reality in its final, haunting shot and fine cinematography from Dick Pope, whose color tone changes correspond with the four seasons.

"Another Year", a rich, organic, compassionate human drama, is about adults who are incapable of being honest with themselves and others.  There's an everyday pathology about the façades we put up in an attempt to be socially polite.  We generally resist the urge to say what we truly think and feel publicly, but in safe company let fly with our honest feelings and offenses.  Are we being true to ourselves or betraying ourselves when we do this?  Is it better to just remain diplomatic and self-contained, possibly bursting at the seams with pent-up angers and irritations?  Isn't it easier (and healthier) to vent?  Tom and Gerri struggle mightily with these issues, where other characters in the film do not.  It's far too easy and convenient to label "Another Year" as a pity party for poor old Mary.  I'm not sure the director wants it to be that easy for his audiences.

Mr. Leigh inevitably forces us to think about all of his characters while dressing them in tragicomic surroundings.  "Another Year" is an entertaining, often funny conversational piece.  It's also a sobering and unsettling experience (though I laughed more hysterically during the film's "Winter" portion each new time I saw it.)  Mr. Leigh isn't indicting his characters; almost all are likable and well-developed, but the more we watch and listen to them, the more we realize that the most suffocated and isolated people are Tom and Gerri themselves.  The truth is, they need help, and need these troubled souls as much as the souls need them.

With: Peter Wight, Michele Austin, Imelda Staunton.

Note: You can also read this review here (with a slideshow) at the S.F. Indie Movie Examiner page.

"Another Year" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some language.  The film's running time is two hours and nine minutes.

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