Famed for his bleak comedy-dramas, writer/director Mike Leigh seems to have mellowed recently. Although not nearly as chirpy as the previous Happy-Go-Lucky, his latest, deceptively understated film is a nicely rounded and subtly nuanced study of love, friendship, ageing and loneliness amongst a small group of ordinary people in north London.
As its title suggests, Another Year evolves over the course of one year, passing through the seasons from spring to winter, during which time not a lot seems to happen and yet everybodys lives change. The common denominator that binds them together are geological engineer Tom and counsellor Gerri, a long and contentedly married couple on the verge of retirement, who act as the confidants for family, friends and colleagues with various life crises.
Chief among them are Mary, a secretary in the health centre where Gerri works, who has resorted to the bottle to escape a series of failed relationships, and Toms boyhood friend Ken, who leads a similarly lonely and even more unbalanced lifestyle of booze, fags and junk food which is beginning to cause him serious health problems. Also receiving Tom and Gerris emotional support are their thirtysomething son Joe still looking for the right girl to settle down with and Toms bereaved brother Ronnie.
What is so impressive about Another Year is the way Leigh depicts these mainly late-middle-aged people with such unsentimental compassion, making us identify with their fears and weaknesses, without ever losing sight of the fact that they need to take responsibility for their lives. Though the pace is measured, and there is no driving narrative, the depiction of character is so precisely detailed and developed that the film effortlessly holds our attention for its 130 minutes duration.
Most of the mise en scene is domestic, taking place in Tom and Gerris comfortable suburban semi, with liberal provision of food and wine, or their nearby allotment, but we have glimpses of their working lives and near the end a funeral is depicted with tender sensitivity. There are plenty of laughs in the earlier parts of the film, but it becomes progressively more melancholic, the screen literally darkening gradually in Leighs long-time collaborator Dick Popes cinematography, which beautifully captures the changing seasons, as growth gives way to decay.
Leighs virtually ensemble company do an outstanding job. As the central couple, Ruth Sheens sympathetic but sensible Gerri and Jim Broadbents warmly humorous Tom are a completely convincing portrait of genuinely good people who try to help others with a lack of self-centredness which is the secret to their happiness. But it is Lesley Manville who steals the film with a very moving performance as the desperate Mary, the extraordinary final shot focusing on her unhappy face as the sound of animated table conversation around is faded out, emphasizing her isolation.
Peter Wights Ken also strongly suggests the hurt behind a boisterous faade, Oliver Maltman makes a likeably laid back Joe and David Bradley brings some real gravitas to the taciturn Ronnie, shell shocked by a grief he is unable to articulate. Credit should also be given to a brief but electrifying turn by Martin Savage as Ronnies disturbingly disaffected son Carl, though as Joes girlfriend Katie, Karina Fernandez irritatingly mannered performance is a throwback to one of Leighs caricatures.
Overall, with its clear-eyed observation and well-balanced presentation of human foibles, Another Year is up there with Vera Drake and Secrets and Lies as one of Leighs most accomplished films.