Director: Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh has an uncanny ability to direct both comedy and tragedy, a trait that not many directors can claim. After the downbeat but brilliant Vera Drake, he made the peppy and almost equally brilliant Happy-Go-Lucky. With his latest, Another Year, Leigh manages a tricky but effective balance between the darkness and the light, delivering a sweet concoction with a sting in the tale. Leigh has been accused of being a miserable old bastard in the past, but this time he’s trying to soften the blow (sort of).
Ostensibly, Another Year centres on Tom (Jim Broadbent) and his wife Gerri (Ruth Sheen). He’s a geologist, she’s a counsellor, and they’re still in love with one another. However, they and their adult son Joe (Oliver Maltman) are just an anchor for the real meat of the story. This family’s happiness is offset by a set of depressing friends. There’s Ken (Peter Wight), a lonely man in poor shape, and Ronnie (David Bradley), Tom’s recently-bereaved brother. However, the main source of depression is Mary (Lesley Manville), Gerri’s work colleague. Mary is a lonely yet lively gal, with a fondness for Joe and the odd glass of wine. The film is split into four parts, one for each season. As the lightness of summer dissolves into a winter of discontent, the family remain pretty constant, whilst Mary slumps into depressed doldrums, a world away from the vivacious good-time gal of the opening scenes. Manville is absolutely wonderful, conveying many emotions across the spectrum of Mary’s troubled year. Awards buzz surrounding Manville is well-deserved, as her heartbreaking performance is what most people will remember about this film. She’s backed up by the lovable Broadbent, Sheen and Maltman, and the rest of the supporting cast make an impact despite limited screentime.
There are plenty of people who find Leigh’s tragedies too raw, and there are just as many who find his comedies too twee. In Another Year, the two elements offset each other nicely; it begins very cheerfully, but dark undercurrents slowly build momentum as the end approaches. It’s unlikely that Another Year will win any of Leigh’s critics over, but his fans will be in heaven. Dick Pope shoots the film in various colours depending on the season and it all looks crisp and beautiful. Meanwhile, Leigh’s unwavering eye for the minutiae of human interaction never fails him. We all know these characters, pathetic as they are, and it is their identifiability that makes Another Year so endearing. It may get heavy at times, but Another Year is another of those life-affirming little gems that Mike Leigh does so well. Like a nice hot cuppa, it refreshes and gives pause for reflection.