Though he's something of a specialized taste in America, where he's usually good for modest art-house box office and the occasional Best Screenplay Oscar nomination, I tend to think British master Mike Leigh might be our best working filmmaker. All of his nine features since breaking into U.S. theaters with 1990's Life Is Sweet are terrific, and at least a couple of them (the period pieces Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake, perhaps the ostensibly trickily slight Happy-Go-Lucky) may well be masterpieces.
The 68-year-old Leigh's latest, Another Year (which recently received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, Leigh's fifth screenplay nomination), is not quite a masterpiece, but it is his most autumnal film to date and feels like something of a culmination of a series of contemporary, class-conscious, social-realist family dramas that include Life Is Sweet, Secrets & Lies, and All or Nothing.
Like his previous film, 2008's Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year's main subject is happiness — why some have it and some don't. Happy-Go-Lucky, which starred Sally Hawkins as an energetic young single schoolteacher, focused on disposition as some confluence of genetics and willpower. Having established that he thinks one can be single and happy, Leigh turns here to the prickly issue of companionship as a component of happiness.
Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are married upper-middle-class London suburbanites Tom and Gerri. He's a geologist. She's a social worker. They have a warm relationship with their adult son Joe (Oliver Maltman). They cook gourmet meals using produce from their well-tended plot at a community garden. They snuggle up in bed at night, reading and musing on their mortality and shared history. They've been a couple since college and are growing old together happily. It's a good life.
But things aren't going quite as well for others in their orbit. And in Another Year, Leigh juxtaposes Tom and Gerri's serenity against the problems of three single houseguests. There's Tom's older brother Ronnie (David Bradley), a taciturn man estranged from his son and flattened by the death of his wife. There's Tom's childhood friend Ken (Peter Wight), drowning his bitterness in a battery of unhealthy habits. Most notably, there's Gerri's co-worker Mary (Lesley Manville), a 50-something secretary unhappily single after a bad divorce and doomed affair with a married man.
Another Year's structure is implied by its title — broken into four seasonal installments, each centering on a gathering at Tom and Gerri's home. Mary figures in each installment, but she isn't family, like Ronnie, and isn't an old friend on equal footing, like Ken. She's also a subordinate of sorts at Gerri's office, and Leigh uses Mary to explore how gradations of closeness and class barriers can complicate friendship.
Mary is a difficult personality. Powered by white wine, she tends to dominate social settings with an irrepressible combination of self-absorption and self-pity, always oversharing, her constant chatter a way to ward off true introspection.
Manville — who, as is Leigh's method, crafted the character with her director in long improvisation and rehearsal sessions before filming began — is so good here as to be nearly unbearable. And though Another Year has received overwhelmingly favorable reviews, some have complained that Mary is treated too harshly. But Mary's type will be familiar — maybe uncomfortably so — to many viewers, and Leigh and Manville treat her honestly but unflinchingly. Though the film is ostensibly about Tom and Gerri, Leigh gives Manville the final moment, much as he did for her supporting character in Topsy-Turvy.
Similar complaints find Tom and Gerri to be smug in their contentment, somehow missing that Leigh very much allows this reading. As Tom and Gerri exchange knowing glances in the presence of their less well-adjusted visitors and make mild gestures toward helping Mary and Ken, in particular, you can see how perhaps Tom and Gerri may see their own perceived goodness and solidity reflected in their tolerance toward the messier lives of others.
Leigh's film has a generally warm attitude toward Tom and Gerri, but it also shows how disparities of contentment and security can result in unintentional notes of condescension. Leigh is after nothing more or less than finding truth in these situations and interactions. And these characters are far too complexly textured and richly drawn to elicit a simple response.
Leigh has tended to use a loose company of actors who pop up again and again in his films. The trio at the center of Another Year is also at the center of his company, this combination of familiarity and the film's acknowledgment of mortality adding an extra depth of feeling for those already engaged with Leigh's other work.
Broadbent (playing the lyricist W.S. Gilbert) and Manville were a couple in Topsy-Turvy, Leigh's biopic of the theatrical team Gilbert & Sullivan. Manville and Sheen were neighbors dealing with different family problems in the drama All or Nothing and also appeared together in Leigh's 1988 film High Hopes. Broadbent had a central role in Life Is Sweet and a smaller one in Vera Drake. Both Manville and Sheen had smaller roles in Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake.
Leigh also draws on his company, rather daringly, for an opening cameo, with Imelda Staunton (who played the title character in Vera Drake) as a very unhappy, therapy-resistant woman who comes to the clinic in pursuit of sleeping pills and ends up forced to talk to Sheen's Gerri. Staunton's character is married and has kids but is deeply unhappy, can't sleep, and doesn't want to talk about her problems.
These opening scenes are generally unconnected to the action in the rest of the film, but they set up the central question about the mystery of happiness — as a product of good decisions, luck, genetic disposition, and other factors — and the need for connection. Everyone needs somebody to talk to, one character notes to another midway through the film. And Leigh implies here — in this portrait of characters moving past middle age — that growing old is easier when you have someone to do it with. But, as the Staunton cameo establishes, even companionship is no guarantee.
Opening Friday, February 4th
Studio on the Square