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Mike Leigh’s last film Happy Go-Lucky (2008) featured the eternal optimist Poppy and her group of 30 something friends making the adjustment from their wild partying excesses of their 20s towards settling down into adult life and responsibilities. In Leigh’s latest film Another Year, the director deals with a different age group entirely focusing on a group of middle-aged people some of whom feel that life has passed them by.
The film begins with Gerri, (Ruth Sheen,) carrying out her job working as a medical councillor helping Janet, (Imelda Staunton,) a reluctant patient who has been suffering from insomnia. In this briefest of appearances by Staunton we see that Gerri is extremely good at her work being able to help unwilling individuals to encounter and deal their emotional problems.
The compassion and understanding that Gerri shows for her patients goes far beyond her professional life as she and her husband Tom (Jim Broadbent) spend much time advising and caring for friends. Although the ironically named Tom and Gerri are a model of marital bliss the same however cannot be said for their single friends the ill-at-ease Mary (Lesley Manville) and booze-soaked Ken (Peter Wright) who at middle-age find themselves struggling with loneliness and a lack of purpose to their lives. Mary is a middle-aged divorcee whose life has stalled in the same manner as her clapped out second hand motor. Lesley Manville’s performance is filled with the fidgety behaviour, affected optimism and self-consciousness of a profoundly unhappy woman trying to hide her perceived inadequacies.
Ken is attracted to Mary but she awkwardly rejects him seeing too much of her own desperation and unhappiness in his stranded life. Instead Mary has her eye on the much younger Joe, Tom and Gerri’s son. The scenes in which Mary unsuccessfully attempts to hide her disdain for Katie, Joe’s younger more successful girlfriend, may cause the audience to laugh out loud but one cannot help but feel a great deal of affection for the character.
As the title suggests the events of Another Year unfold over a 12 month timeframe and are segmented into the four seasons. In each season Tom and Gerri are seen at their allotment; planting seedlings in the spring, tending to them in summer and harvesting their crop in the autumn, winter begins with the death of Tom’s sister-in-law as the family head to Hull for the funeral. The rigid structure may appear to be opposed to Leigh’s famed improvisational approach to filmmaking but actually draws out the one of the film’s most important themes: although time is ordered people’s lives are often chaotic and often fail to turn out how they had intended.
In the funeral scene Tom, Gerri and Joe act with dignity and compassion even when they are faced with the anger and resentment of Tom’s nephew Carl. They invite the near-silent Ronnie (David Bradley) Tom’s widowed brother to stay with them until he feels he can cope on his own. Although deep sadness, loneliness and even death touch upon Tom and Gerri’s life they manage to come through each situation intact and reach out to others.
Leigh has often stated in interviews that he often works with the same actors because he knows what they are capable of and feels comfortable working alongside them. This secure working environment is displayed in both Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen’s acting who give perfectly measured performances as two people very much in love and at peace with the world. Lesley Manville’s Mary is a touching and very detailed character study and maintains much of the film’s focus.
Another Year is indeed familiar territory for Mike Leigh and fans of the director’s work concentrating on the personal relationships and angst of ordinary people and their lives. The film’s exploration of the sometimes unnerving sometimes comforting process of ageing is a theme which is rarely visited in mainstream cinema. Throughout the film Leigh utilizes the same tragic-comic approach which has served him so well in the past making a picture which is humorous, poignant but never sentimental. Another Year is far from just another Mike Leigh film.