Monday, December 27, 2010
Just look at that cute couple right there. Those are Tom and Gerri, a loving British pair who lead a peaceful middle class British life in Mike Leigh's Another Year. Going into the movie, I fully expected them to tend to their organic vegetable patch, and laugh and enjoy themselves while eating with friends and family. Maybe things would become a little more somber as they started to contemplate mortality or regret lost youth. And I was right; Tom and Gerri weather the good and bad of one more year together with humor and good spirit. They marvel over the plump tomatoes that they grow. They see their 30 year old son get a new girlfriend, reminisce with old friends, and face a death in the family (that of Tom's sister in law) mournfully, but with an ease that lets us know that this is nothing new for them. But perhaps I underestimated Mike Leigh (this is my first time seeing one of his movies). Another Year is not content with being charming, heartfelt, and bittersweet; instead, it aims for devastating.
The movie's darker side comes in the form of Mary (an excellent Lesley Manville), one of Gerri's coworkers at the hospital (Gerri is a therapist), and, more out of pity than anything else, her friend. Mary is a bit of a hopeless case; she can't find anyone to love in her life, has a tendency to embarrass herself when drunk, and she can't stop talking about the new car she's about to (and eventually does) buy--it's the most exciting thing to happen to her in years. At first Mary is charmingly neurotic, and her troubles fit right in to the tapestry of minor annoyances and problems that fill up movies about middle-class lives. But at some point, Mary's false cheerfulness, incessant self-pitying, and total cluelessness becomes downright annoying, for Tom and Gerri and the rest of their family, but also for me--I felt that she had devolved too much into caricature. However, Leigh takes things much further; in the final scenes he removes everything comic about her until all that is left is despair. Another Year might be a movie about regular people and regular problems, but there's nothing regular (or is there?) about the misery on display.
Mary is accompanied by an ensemble cast of more hopeless souls. There's Ken, fat and unloved with chronic drinking and smoking problems, Ronnie, the dazed, remote, and very sad brother whose wife has just died, Carl, Ronnie's angry and hateful son, and Immelda Stauntin in a scene/movie stealing role as one of Gerri's depressed patients. And then there are the fortunate ones--Tom, Gerri, & co--who have love and some semblance of purpose to their lives. Here, they're altruistic and often helpful towards the damned, but we have to wonder if they really are as considerate as compassionate as they make themselves out to be. They're more than a little guilty of apathy.
And now, some praise for Leigh for holding all the threads of this story together so gracefully, for making it elucidating instead of misanthropic and forced. Well, if you know anything about his directing style, "forced" would be the last word to come to mind. Apparently, Leigh's movies stem not so much from scripts, but from the actors' exploration of their characters based on some initial guidelines. The finished product is more of an expensive improv session than something that was planned ahead of time. More praise is therefore due for how carefully constructed the movie comes off as. There are four sections to it-- Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter-- and each one builds, opens fresh wounds, and feels complete in itself. And with each changing season, the loneliness and desperation escalate, until we reach the final revelatory scene. At this point, it's a revelation that's almost a forgone conclusion--hopelessness already seems as natural as Gerri's lovely tomatoes or the passage of time.