Movie Review: Another Year (PG-13)


another_yearTurn, Turn, Turn

Stuck in place as the world goes round

by Jared Peterson

Another Year is a nature film of sorts, but the nature it examines is entirely human. In this newest work from virtuoso director Mike Leigh, the camera zooms in close and lingers long on scenes that play out against the changing of the seasons, and that reveal both the subtlety and the enormity of life and its cycles. The stillness and attention he engenders allows us access to arcane moments we might otherwise miss or simply ignore.

Tom and Gerri (yes, yes… they know) are a healthy, contented couple in late middle age. They have a charming, lived-in London home and a garden allotment nearby that they diligently tend. They have a well-adjusted adult son they wish they saw more of. They have day jobs that engage and satisfy them: Tom (Jim Broadbent) is a geologist, Gerri (Ruth Sheen) a mental health counselor—professions that share, if nothing else, a call for extraordinary patience.

Patience certainly comes in handy with some of their friends. One of them, Mary (the amazing Leslie Manville), works with Gerri at the clinic. Sweet, gregarious and more than a little needy, Mary dominates conversations with sometimes wine-soaked retellings of minor melodramas in her single, middle-aged existence. Her ramblings are laced with optimism and denial and couched in upward-slanting inflections and half-questions. She’s looking for someone to save her. Gerri and Tom treat her with genuine kindness and attention, but they know better than to jump headlong into her self-perpetuating drama.

Tom’s boyhood friend Ken (Peter Wight) is a wreck of a different type. In his 50s, also single, he is far less upbeat. He hates his job, which he sees as dominated by loud, ungrateful youngsters (which he once was himself). With a stout frame and a voracious appetite to match his outsized personality, Ken shifts between food and drink, reminiscence and complaint, with a dexterity that comes from obsessive practice. (Hats off to Wight. Even in real life, I’ve never seen anyone drink like that—he’d have required surgery to do multiple takes.) Ken feels trapped and useless; he wants love, but he has eaten himself into a corner. Tom and Gerri radiate affection and do their best to comfort him.

Another Year is an oddity in that it places a legitimately happy couple at its center. I say center—while Tom and Gerri are very interesting to watch, they are primarily a grounding point around which the more dysfunctional characters wobble and careen. Mary clearly sees them as her salvation, and she flirtatiously fixates on their as-yet unattached, 30-year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman) in an attempt to secure an all-access pass to love, family and security. In the fall, when Joe brings a new girlfriend home, Mary’s illusions shatter and she undergoes a kind of internal meltdown—self-contained and sickeningly slow—right there at the kitchen table. (It’s a simply spectacular piece of acting by Manville.) So strong were her delusions that, even to the end of the film, it remains unclear if she can move beyond the rubble left by their implosion.

Another Year succeeds without the traditional practice of humbling the happy and rehabilitating the sad. What fascinates Leigh is the tectonics of dysfunction—the ripples and rumbles of unexamined feeling and unacknowledged need that play sometimes jarringly and sometimes almost imperceptibly across the characters’ faces and that carve the landscapes of their lives. I’ll admit that, in my crass, American pop-culture way, I was expecting and awaiting the quake—for some more familiar catharsis, some big, loud throw-down to release the pent-up tension. No such luck. (The dramatic cliché has it that a gun glimpsed in the first act must go off in third. But what if the gun is British?) Those eager for reality-show fireworks shouldn’t hold their breath. Leigh’s work rewards our careful attention, but it deflects and denies our schadenfreude. His steady camera, unflinching gaze, and the stark and utter truthfulness of what it sees, make it impossible to cast the first stone.

Talking with Gerri one night, Tom’s thoughts alight briefly on the subject of history. “The older you get, the more relevant it seems,” he muses. Maybe so. We don’t really know how they got to where they are—perhaps they were just lucky—but we do know how they stay that way: respect, openness, patience. We get hints of the bumps in Ken and Mary’s lives, the personal losses and bad choices. But it’s how they have coped that matters and captivates, and that lingers in our minds long after the credits have rolled. The seasons change, and one year rolls around to another. Experiences pile up and are tamped down by time and chance, by choice and habit. Before you know it, they are the ground beneath your feet. Whether you dig yourself a hole or build yourself a home—well, that’s up to you.

Another Year is rated PG-13 for adult language and agonizingly awkward pauses. Realistically, most kids will likely prefer to stay home and watch paint dry.