A four seasons symphony of age-worn contentment and unhappy boozers, Mike Leigh’s Another Year conquers and divides into haves and have-nots.
Older And Wiser by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
In Mike Leigh’s Another Year, you’re either happy or borderline alcoholic. It’s a sad indictment of the sorrows-drowning masses in Leigh’s film, the unhappy flotsam who find themselves on the wrong side of the happiness barometer. On the upside are Gerri and Tom, sailing through life’s calm waters with quiet weekend cuppas on the allotment and wholesome family meals with their community lawyer son Joe and Katie, his new squeeze. Winter, spring and autum to their halcyon summer days are Mary, Ken and Ronnie – wine-slurping, beer-guzzling misfits who circle the golden couple for a bit of hand-me-down warmth.
Germinating out of Mike Leigh’s notorious improvisation technique, Another Year hosts a bevy of Leigh regulars. And Lesley Manville in particular shines as the lonely heart cuddled up to a bottle of Chardonnay. As Mary she’s a lonely, unfulfilled secretary, twice divorced, but carrying a hopelessly inappropriate torch for Tom and Gerri’s grown-up son Joe. Ken, a bitter Job Centre employment-doler, kindhearted and desperate for a bit of company. And there’s Ronnie, Tom’s bereaved and taciturn brother, who, after his wife’s funeral, is persuaded to leave Hull for a bit of R&R away from his house full of memories and belligerent son. A professional counsellor, Gerri’s natural born listener, a beacon for these needy, grieving and unhappy moths. And her doting geologist hubby Tom is kind-hearted and lovingly forgetful, their relationship a blissful idyll of contentment – working homeowners, faithful companions and carefree parents.
Divided into chapters, Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, Another Year is curiously episodic, summer and winter devoted to Ken and Ronnie’s unhappy antics, while only Mary’s story courses the whole year. There’s even a prologue featuring a morose Imelda Staunton who, after her first session with Gerri, never returns. Written out of the narrative, she’s an exuberant example of Leigh’s passion for performance. And a glum echo of Golden Lion winner Vera Drake. But while Staunton’s main dramatic function is to introduce Gerri’s character, she’s also a symbol, representative of all the film’s castaways. A hopelessness in which the only thing that would have made her life better is another life.
Dwelling at such length on other people’s misfortunes and dubious coping strategies lends a tragic bleakness to Another Year. At times it’s cut through by charmingly nuanced performances. At others, the central couple are shrouded in smugness, an ivory tower impregnable to the slings and arrows of others’ misfortune. It’s a misery only too familiar to Mary, Ken and Ronnie. Mary’s yearned-for independence and excitement after buying a new car turns to bitterness as the burden of parking tickets, licence points and one-way systems overwhelms her. Ken’s advances to Mary are brusquely rejected, his loneliness only kept at bay with the promise of a Peak District getaway with Tom. And while the leisurely pace of Sunday tea and summer barbecues provide a comforting routine for Tom and Gerri, the year stretches out long before Ken, Ronnie and Mary. Safely coddled in an alcoholic haze, there’s no way out. They’re all just scraping through another year.
Until Mary’s jealousy of Joe’s girlfriend Katie sees her banished from this suburban paradise, that is. Disappointed by her petulant unfriendliness, Tom and Gerri carry on regardless, Mary written out of their story for a while. And then she comes crawling back, her car written off and on the verge of a breakdown, striking up a mutually compassionate friendship with Ronnie. It’s a beguiling ending, the pair of them sitting round the dinner table – sullen, passive bystanders to family life. But also, things have changed. It’s not just another year. Mary’s changed. She’s able to see past Ronnie’s ragged exterior, a desexualised view she never managed with Ken. And for once, life isn’t refracted through the lens of her wants and needs. Her offer to help Ronnie pack away his dead wife’s things is honest and altruistic. A great leap forward. And as the camera zooms in, silence invading, perhaps the realisation that this vicarious life isn’t hers.
How different Another Year would have been if Mary had been at its centre. Happy Go Lucky in a minor key perhaps. But charming as they are, the faultless couple don’t really do very much. And maybe that’s the point, that Gerri and Tom are leisurely symbolic of a third age stability, excitement and frustration reduced to mopping up around feckless friends and family. There is however an ugly line drawn in the sand between front-row family and back-row friends, Mary dropped when she needs them most. It’s a qualitative difference Leigh even highlights with the actors’ performances, Lesley Manville and Peter Wight acting in a different register to the more naturalistic Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent. An awkward discontinuity, forcing us to choose between the affectionate and the disaffected. But with a performance like that, Lesley Manville wins hands down.
Another Year is released in the UK on 5th November