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Another Year: Mike Leigh’s Witty, Mournful Look at Middle Age

This is a movie about old British people who sit around and drink tea and wine. Their younger years have passed them by, and now they spend much of their time evaluating how to spend their later years. Some are settled and content, some are lonely and and upset to be growing old. There’s really not a “plot” per se, yet these characters’ wants and desires propel the film forward in a much more compelling way than most action movies. I happen to love Mike Leigh’s films– here’s a writer/director who puts the focus on character first and foremost, and with the help of the actors concocts a witty script full of heart every time he sits down at a typewriter. Some people don’t have the patience for movies where aging folks sit and talk wittily all film long. For those who see the beauty and simple poetry in a Mike Leigh film, you’re in luck. Another Year is another success.

The film follows a year in the life of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a couple in their early sixties. They have a son in his mid-twenties, Joe (Oliver Maltman), who is still single and seems relatively content not looking. They frequently have over Mary (Lesley Manville), a co-worker of Gerri’s, for drinks. Boy, does Mary drink– she’s a divorced woman in her forties who’s been single for years and, despite affirmations to the contrary, she’s unhappy and lonely. Other people who swing by Tom and Gerri’s place for drinks: Ken (Peter Wight), an overweight pal of Tom’s from days past who is also lonely; Tanya (Michele Austin), a pregnant woman from Gerri’s work; and Ronnie (David Bradley), Tom’s older brother whose wife is ill. Leigh divides the film into four chapters of an average year in these people’s lives. There’s not really a linear conflict, except for these characters trying to figure out how to find peace in their later years as their lives wind down.

The strengths of Leigh’s films are always the performances and the dialogue. He allows the camera to very softly and gracefully watch these people go through their day-to-day routine, and he finds the beauty in it. At the beginning of every season, we watch Tom and Gerri working in their garden. Not only does this reveal the nurturing character of the couple, but it lets Leigh show the passage of time as the seasons change. By showing us one day in the life, then cutting to the next season, we get the sense of the swiftness with which we age. The star of this movie, unquestionably, is Manville. There are entire scenes in which Leigh just leaves the camera on Mary as she reacts to those around her– sometimes, she’s full of manic energy, other times she’s angry and depressed. Regardless, even when she’s making the wrong life choices, Leigh watches her with love. We root for her: we understand and sympathize with the plight of growing old alone. Other films would make her the subject of cruel satire, since she acts deluded at times, childish in others, and vainly attempts to avoid admitting the truth about her age and behavior. In a film like Another Year, we root for characters instead of judging them.

It’s also easy to root for characters who share such witty conversation. There are very few filmmakers who you can tell the screenwriter if you close your eyes and just listen– Mike Leigh is absolutely one of that select group. There’s a specific rhythm… while it’s a definitively British rhythm, it’s not like other Brit flicks. Leigh’s dialogue in his comedies has a lightness, a brevity that doesn’t cut the other characters off but instead adds to what they’ve said like building blocks being stacked upon one another. He’s chosen a cast made nearly entirely of actors he’s worked with before, so listening to Broadbent, Sheen, and Manville execute these rhythms is like hearing Mantegna and Macy handle Mamet– they’re so acutely on the same page as the writer that it sounds like second nature. Ruth Sheen in particular stands out to me with her warmth; she gets hurt by another character in the film, but she doesn’t get mad like a normal person. It never leaves the realm of disappointment. Even when she gets frustrated by a patient at the movie’s beginning (Imelda Staunton, in an impactful cameo), it comes from wishing for the best from people who have been dealt bum hands by life. The sad truth is not everyone finds their someone, and many people will get old alone, and even if you have someone, they at some point will die. It’s a bitterpill to swallow, but Leigh finds a poetry in the lives that people do lead. In the autumn of our lives, leaves don’t grow back on the tree, so cherish the ones that are still there and make the most of them.

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~ by russellhainline on January 28, 2011.

One Response to “Another Year: Mike Leigh’s Witty, Mournful Look at Middle Age”

  1. […] Pilgrim Vs. The World 7. Michael Arndt, Toy Story 3 6. Simon Beaufoy, 127 Hours 5. Mike Leigh, Another Year 4. Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit 3. Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, Simon Blackwell, and Chris Morris, […]

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