Same time this year
Mike Leigh is a famously improvisatory filmmaker, devising his scripts through probing and exhaustive in-character work with his actors. By the time he writes everything down and calls “Action!” on the set (if indeed he ever does anything so ordinarily orthodox), everybody knows their roles on an almost subatomic level. Sometimes the result is a truly wonderful movie, sometimes a movie that feels like an overdose of unpleasant medicine and sometimes a kitchen-sink soap opera that we suspect we should like more than we really do. Another Year is a bit of all three.
At the center of Another Year are Tom and Gerri (jokey names intended and remarked upon in the course of the action), a happily married, loving and nurturing couple in late middle age. Tom (Jim Broadbent) is a geological engineer, Gerri (Ruth Sheen) a mental-health counselor, and both are amateur gardeners, working their allotment patch with the serene contentment of Farmer McGregor with no Peter Rabbit to worry about. They have a warm and close relationship with their 30-something son, Joe (Oliver Maltman).
Tom and Gerri’s home also serves as a haven for losers; they’re just too tenderhearted to turn them away. The biggest loser of all is Mary (Lesley Manville), a sloppy dead-ender drunk whose self-loathing is obvious, and entirely justified: She is in fact a loathsome person, forever imposing on Tom and Gerri (and, more creepily, on Joe) with a form of emotional blackmail—treat me with kid gloves, stroke my tender ego, indulge my every drunken whim or I just might kill myself and it’ll be all your fault.
Not far behind on the loser scale is Ken (Peter Wight), a longtime buddy of Tom’s who drinks like a fish, smokes like a stove, behaves like a soccer-stand yobbo and can’t understand why he’s stumbling all alone into old age. He makes sloppy, slurring advances toward Mary, but she shoves him off; her bleary eye is set on Joe, young enough to be her son (in fact, about the age Mary secretly believes she still is herself).
Another Year follows a structure of four seasonal chapters beginning with spring, and in the fourth chapter, winter, the third loser comes into the movie’s orbit. This is Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley), and we meet him when Tom, Gerri and Joe travel to Derby for the funeral of Ronnie’s wife, then, naturally, bring Ronnie home to stay with them “for a while.” He’s clearly unable to cope with anything, least of all his own numbing grief or the aimless rage of his son Carl (Martin Savage). Late in the movie, Mary drops by the house to find Ronnie there alone and invites herself in, prattling desperately in fits and starts while he stares at her hardly uttering a word. It’s just about the most excruciatingly awkward conversation in movie history.
Mary’s presence—needy, insistent, demanding—has a way of spoiling every dinner party whether she’s invited or not, and in a way Mary spoils the movie as well. Lesley Manville uses Mary’s obnoxious character as an excuse for giving an obnoxious performance. That’s the other side, the pitfall of Leigh’s creative coin of improvisation: When actors are this fully invested in creating their characters from the ground up, they can be tempted to overindulge. While Mary overindulges in alcohol, Manville overindulges in “acting,” and Leigh himself overindulges with long, can’t-look-away-from-this-train-wreck close-ups until our respect for Manville’s talent goes the way of our sympathy for Mary’s self-imposed plight. Pitilessness is not the same thing as honesty; bombast is not necessarily eloquence.
Against Mary’s demands for attention, the simple decency of Tom and Gerri doesn’t stand a chance, nor does Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen’s self-effacing subtlety against Lesley Manville’s tooth-and-nail demands for attention, praise and awards. The praise has been near unanimous, and she’s already landed a British Academy of Film and Television Arts nomination, but missed an Oscar nod. But it looked like plain old English ham to me, and like Tom and Gerri ignoring Mary’s boozy sulk at the end, I was damn grateful to see the end of it.