Mike Leigh has been one of my favourite directors since I first saw Secrets & Lies (1996) when I was just thirteen. I have the same heartbreaking emotional reaction each time I see the film. I remember my experiences watching Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake (2004) and falling in love with Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008). Mike Leigh, who spends months working with his cast to build the screenplay, has a great talent for understanding human emotion. I wish I had seen his new film, Another Year, at the Toronto International Film Festival when I discovered it was not to be released until the middle of January. The film reminds me of Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), as both films centre around a group of characters over an extended period of time. Another Year focuses on Tom and Gerri, played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, over a period of one year. There is a strong focus on the change of seasons, made richer by the garden allotment tended to by Tom and Gerri. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are both exceptional as an aging couple whose love brightens the screen, but it is Lesley Manville, as Gerri's depressed and delusional coworker, who controls the film. There is so much to say and to love about Another Year, but for me, it is the humanity of the characters that makes the film more emotionally profound. Every scene is natural and unforced with rich dialogue, the product of improvised rehearsals. Another Year is an intimate portrait of a couple and their acquaintances over the course of a calendar year. The beauty of the film is in the actors and their characters, who are so well-rounded that it is impossible not to want to knock on their front door and enter their lives.
Tom (Broadbent) and Gerri (Sheen) have been married for more than three decades. He works as a geological engineer and she is a medical counselor. They are still very much in love and spend much of their free time taking care of their garden allotment. Mary (Manville), a doctor's assistant, has worked with Gerri for twenty years. She is lonely and emotionally fragile. Mary depends on the kindness of Gerri and Tom and is a frequent visitor to their home. On many of those occasions she drinks too much and required an overnight stay. The emotionally insecure Mary clings to the belief that Tom and Gerri's thirty year old son Joe (Oliver Maltman) will one day respond to her flirtation. In the spring, Joe is unattached, but by autumn he has started a relationship with Katie (Karina Fernandez) and Mary handles the news quite poorly, going as far as to affect her friendship with Gerri. In the summer, Tom and Gerri are also visited by Ken (Peter Wight), a widowed friend whose drinking and smoking have affected his health. By the winter, Joe and Katie have become much closer, but Tom and Gerri are affected by the death of his brother Ronnie's (David Bradley) wife. Through all the ups and downs experienced by family and friends, Tom and Gerri remain unwaveringly in love.
Another Year never sacrifices the story for the sake of the beautiful contrasts within the film. Each scene is a beautiful and honest moment in the lives of these characters. Mike Leigh does an expert job contrasting Mary's loneliness with Joe's new relationship with Kathy, the newborn son of Gerri's colleague with the death of Ronnie's wife, but through it all Tom and Gerri steady the film. Some of the most powerful moments of the film are the knowing glances between the pair, such as the nod or disapproving glance they share when Mary has had too much to drink or made a fool of herself once again in front of Joe. The film is separated into four segments represented by the seasons. The film has a natural progression and we, as the audience, are aware that there will be no major major revelations. These characters, whether we approve of their actions are not, are multidimensional and honest representations. The film may centre around Tom and Gerri, but the emotional current of Another Year is controlled by Mary. She has a lot of problems and makes a lot of poor choices, but Lesley Manville's performance is flawless. She allows Mary to be empathetic while still being pathetic. The final shot of the film, focused entirely on Mary, is both beautiful and unnerving. Another Year was well worth the wait and I only wish I could spend a second year with these characters and witness how their lives progress into the future.
My rating: 4 stars out of 4.