By Richard Schickel
Tom (Jim Broadbent) is a geologist whose hobby is cooking. His wife, Gerri (Ruth Sheen), is a counselor at a psychology center. They lead snug, not to say smug, little lives, the largest excitement of which is provided by their garden where they grow their vegetables and by their messed-up friend, Mary (Lesley Manville), who is one of Gerri’s co-workers, and whose true mission in life is to discomfit the comfortable. As its title forthrightly states, writer-director Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” simply records the spring-to-spring passage of the annual round of days in these very ordinary lives. I think, for reasons difficult to explain, that it is a near-to-great film.
Not that very much “happens” in the film—its biggest event is a death in the family (Tom’s brother’s wife passes), an occasion for stoicism for the widower, crazy anger from his son. These characters, however, are introduced late in the film and they have no more than a small impact on us or on the rest of the family. They sympathetically absorb the loss and do their best to keep their lives moving along on an even keel.
This is also pretty much how they handle Mary, their resident wild card. She’s a lonely woman, given to solitary drinking and to an increasingly desperate search for a man to lighten the burden of her ditsy days. She even hits on Tom and Gerri’s grown-up son, who, sure enough, turns up with a very pleasant young woman, with marriage very much in the offing. Lord help her, by the end of the film Mary is even casting a yearning eye on the new widower. In truth, however, her only meaningful relationship is with a used car she purchases, which—what else is new?—turns out to be a lemon, like everything else in her life.
It seems to me that Manville’s performance in this role is as good as anything we have seen at the movies this year. For some time it is possible to understand her as no more than eccentric, in the way that lonesome single people often are, prone to turning up unannounced at her friends’ house, generally—but not always—welcome for a meal or even a sleepover. You get the feeling that she puts a little bounce in their lives, while offering them the opportunity to worry a little about her, which is not a bad thing for them, given the general blandness of their lives. The mystery in Manville’s work revolves around the question of her self-consciousness. You always wonder, in the presence of this type, whether they are play-acting—trying to make themselves more interesting than they actually are, in order to command some attention—or whether they are intrinsically nut jobs, slowly, if showily, deteriorating as the years and the disappointments pile up. Manville isn’t telling. She just exists, more or less an inconvenience, a pest—yet one who nourishes a wan hope that the right man, the right apartment, even a better job, might yet rescue her for something close to normalcy.
The film was constructed in the curious Mike Leigh way. He gathers his actors, presents them with a situation, which they develop over weeks of improvisation, with Leigh finally writing up the movie’s script. Nearly always, that document and the resultant movie offer more dramatic tension than this working method would seem to promise, though it is often quite slyly stated.
That’s what happens in “Another Year,” with Manville providing this film with its wayward pulse—and with such naturalism. You never once catch her acting crazy. There is an internal logic to her illogicality that is, finally, enormously touching. By the end of “Another Year,” we find her staring into the camera with a profoundly puzzled look on her face, as if acknowledging that she has reached some kind of emotional ground zero from which there is no relief, no escape. It is about as hopeless a moment as you are likely to find in a film, made the more so because we see, as spring once again awakens, that the lives upon which she has intruded are preparing to bustle on.
Which is the other fine thing about “Another Year.” Tom and Gerri—do you think that’s a conscious reference to the more violently self-absorbed cartoon characters or just an accident?—are, it seems to me, not really terribly nice people. They can mime sympathy, the odd TLC moment. But, in truth, their largest desire is to protect the even tenor of their days—as most of us do. They literally, and symbolically, prefer to tend their own garden. And “Another Year” is in the final analysis a very cool and quietly cruel study in the ways people fail to connect, even though they imagine that they are doing so.
Peter Wight and Lesley Manville live it down in Mike Leigh’s “Another Year.”