Friday, June 10, 2011

Another Year: Time Marches On

Another Year
United Kingdom, 2010
Directed by Mike Leigh

The Northern Irish band Therapy? once declared, perhaps paraphrasing Tolstoy, that "happy people have no stories." Yet Mike Leigh's Another Year depicts a year in the life of a happy, successful couple in late middle age, their story broken into four sections corresponding to the seasons. Tom Hepple (Jim Broadbent) is an engineering geologist. Gerri (Ruth Sheen) is a counselor. They have a lovely home, a well-adjusted adult son (Oliver Maltman), and work diligently in their allotment garden during their free time. So what is the story, here?

Well, true to the quote, most of the "story" isn't about Tom and Gerri, but their interactions with the friends and relatives whose troubles blow them into and out of the Hepples' happy little life. This includes friend Ken (Peter Wight), an overweight, lonely jokester, and Tom's taciturn, grieving brother Ronnie (David Bradley, Harry Potter's Argus Filch). But the most troubled of these outsiders is Mary (Lesley Manville), Gerri's unstable, tragic co-worker, whose presence ties the four sections together.

Mary is like a force of nature, a dervish whose turbulence affects every other character in the film. She's irresponsible, living at the boundaries of her means in a booze-heavy lifestyle befitting someone far younger than she is. Her boisterous personality hides a tragic sadness, as she has yet to get over the end of a prior relationship with a married man. As played by Manville, Mary absolutely takes over every scene she's in, dominating the proceedings whether through her contagious effervescence or toxic, self-loathing anxiety. We've all known Marys; some of us might even be Marys, to a greater or lesser extent. That's why it's so hard to watch as her issues eat her alive over the course of the year.

Leigh is a master of mining the small details, and his much-noted process of working with the actors to improvise characters and scenarios for months before filming allows him to capture nuances of truth a more pre-ordained format might miss. Here, he and cinematographer Dick Pope grant each season a distinct look befitting each segment's tone. This works in support of the film's main theme of aging, of the passage of time and how we choose to accept (or reject) the implications of no longer being young. The summer is warm and vibrant, the winter a cold, flat, desaturated white, the white of old age and sorrow.

Tom and Gerri, like the earth in which they plant their garden, continue to produce and thrive regardless of age, nurturing those who aren't so fortunate. They have each other, and a life of happy memories together to look back on. The others, all lonely in some way, can't say the same. They are too self-absorbed, or stubborn, or reliant on other people to accept the responsibilities and commitments late middle age entails. Tom and Gerri are more than happy to share their bounty, but can only do so much. The hard work comes from within.

Leigh's films have a strange quality to them, in that they sound so simple and unimpressive when described. They are light on incident, and heavy on internal truths dramatized in subtle ways. Another Year is full of conversations and dialog-heavy set pieces, bits of actorly business and clever staging that are hard to do justice on paper. They have to be seen and experienced for their depth of characterization and emotion to be appreciated. This may sound like a sad film, and it is on many levels, but there is great mirth and warmth, too. Gerri and Tom come across as the kind of people we could all use in our lives, so long as we don't use them as a stick by which to measure our own successes and failures.

In the end, you could try to find the film's message by interpreting its simple yet meaning-rich title. Is it Another Year in the sense of one more year, inexorably rolling in like the ones before, adding one more mark to the tally? Are we, as the old song says, "another year older and deeper in debt?" Or should we celebrate surviving one more year in a difficult world? Perhaps it is the mantra of those characters, like Mary, who find themselves trapped within prisons of their own devising. Perhaps it's what they say as they cling to the belief that they'll put in the hard work to free themselves, maybe not this year, but another year. Sadly, as Gerri and Tom know all too well, another year of doing the same thing will only lead to another year getting the same results.

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