There is a particular genius to the filmmaking process of Mike Leigh. The celebrated British director of “Life is Sweet,” “Secrets & Lies,” “Vera Drake” and “Happy-Go-Lucky” is famous for drafting story and character outlines and then trusting his actors to spend enough time getting to know their characters that they are able to “be” in whatever situation Leigh places them in. The process thrives on trust, partnership and faith in a shared vision. This, of course, requires a unique group of performers, actors who are intuitive and alive in the moment, and Leigh has a core ensemble (Jim Broadbent and Imelda Staunton are stalwarts) that provides the foundation for his projects.
Although actors have earned distinct singular acting honors for their work in Leigh’s films, rarely does one performer or character dominate the proceedings, but in his latest, “Another Year,” which received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, a jittery rough gem steals the spotlight.
From the start, the premise seems to offer yet another Leigh ensemble roundelay framed as a year in the life of a generation passing onward. Tom (Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) have maintained the perfect marriage, coasting smoothly now into their later years, casting their watchful and secure gaze over friends and family who struggle to follow their example. Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley) has just lost his wife and has a 40-something-year-old son (Martin Savage) consumed by rage and blatant disregard for the family unity and stability. An old friend, Ken (Peter Wight) has no family of his own or financial stability and is drinking himself into oblivion. Tom and Gerri’s son Joe (Oliver Maltman) is well-meaning and dutiful, but unattached as he crosses into his 30s, leading to unspoken fears and questions about his future.
Yet, it is Mary (Leslie Manville) who demands the most attention from Tom and Gerri, and the audience. Mary, a co-worker of Gerri’s, is moving ungracefully through middle age. She’s a former beauty and still a voracious flirt despite the fact that now the single men her age are seeking the affections of young girls. Her aura is a jagged edge of desperation compounded by heavy drinking that has her two feet squarely in the realm of unacknowledged alcoholism. Grasping at the final available straws, Mary awkwardly latches onto first Joe and then Ronnie, which threatens to sever her lifeline connections with Tom and Gerri.
Manville has the juiciest role and she knows it. Her Mary becomes the most extreme counterpoint to Tom and Gerri, and along the way, exposes hidden fault lines in their union. The audience sees how Mary’s antics drive the two to quiet distraction and yet, they enable her by never truly forcing her to face her own naked reality. We see that she is stuck, in some ways, like Aron Ralston (James Franco) in “127 Hours,” but unable (or unwilling) to extricate herself from the trap she is in, and in her case, death is in no hurry. Manville is a raw nerve, a bleeding wound unattended, and in each passing season the film documents, we come to realize that it all adds up; another year of hurt, another year of missed opportunities, another year of need unfulfilled.
“Another Year” is not a celebration of the good, the things we should be thankful for and praise each and every day. Leigh and Manville offer us reflections of our mortality, our bad choices, and the cruel hand of fate that draws out our suffering. (tt stern-enzi)