Another Mike Leigh Masterpiece
A Mike Leigh film: people; situations; reactions; misery as a by-product of happiness. In examining his entire scope of work, from 1988’s emotion-packed High Hopes to the latest little unassuming masterpiece, Another Year, it becomes crystal clear that the British filmmaker has an incredibly captivating way of turning the least significant of human interactions into a momentous movie event.
This time (his 19th film), it’s about a married, middle-aged couple, Tom and Gerry, (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) who are now enjoying their childless, cozy, London home, having overcome most of life’s most demanding traumas and challenges. He’s a government geologist, she, a medical clinic counselor. Their only excitement comes from tending to their co-op garden and the frequent visits from their 30-year-old single son, Joe (Oliver Maltman).
But Tom and Gerri don’t need much excitement. See, they have each other. They enjoy the unlikely gratification of contentment. And Leigh’s camera loves exploring their confined happiness. He somehow manages to mine captivating sequences from their ordinary, everyday activities. Whether from an extended shot of the couple sipping tea while holding hands in a tiny wooden shed waiting out a brief spring shower, or a comfy scene of the two tottering about their house, tending to daily chores, we’re fascinated.
As the title suggests, the film courses through four seasons of a single year in Tom and Gerri’s life, beginning in the early spring with a yellow and green-tinted lens, to the whited-out, somewhat bleached depiction of winter. In between, we’re taken on an expressive exploration of the idea of happiness and its colorful effect on regular people.
Revolving around the contented couple is a constellation of friends, co-workers and relatives who come and go as if by the change of the seasons. The principal of these flitterers is the flighty Mary (Leslie Manville), a single woman approaching middle age yet clinging to her youth as hard as she does a bottle of wine. She clearly has the hots for the much younger Joe, but he casually and politely deflects her advances. For many viewers, Mary may be a bit much. Her misery-loves-company affectations and desperate need for approval come off as a bit strong initially, but she’ll grow on you, even if she’s the kind of person you’d go out of your way to avoid in real life. Manville gives an acting clinic here, baring the humiliated soul of her aging Mary while also convincing us she’s as real a person as we’d ever meet.
Then there’s Ken (Peter Wright), an old college mate of Tom, whom we meet in the summer. He’s another middle-aged mess who knows his way around the dinner table as well as he does a can of beer. When not tearfully dwelling on the missed opportunities of his past, he’s hitting on Mary, despite her disgusted rejections.
Winter brings not only happiness to Joe in the person of perky girlfriend Katy (Karina Fernandez), but heartache for Tom as well, involving his brother Ronnie (David Bradley) and his son Carl (Martin Savage). A trip up to Darby for a quick visit turns near calamitous as we learn that closeness to relatives is inversely proportional to proximity.
Downbeat, slow, calculated and muted, Leigh’s slice-of-life film often just lies there, studying a facial wrinkle, an empty wine glass, or a ripened fruit in the garden. But the linger displays a vividly intelligent knowledge of filmmaking. He points the camera, yells “action” and lets his tender but pointed script (recently nominated for an Academy Award) go to work, spinning its tale of happiness, companionship, and the connection between the two. He knows the strongest impact will come from his full-bodied characters and the extremely talented stable of actors. He never answers the questions he raises about human behavior, preferring instead for viewers to pull from their own experience to decide if we, as humans, need others to experience happiness, or does loneliness just make us an absurdly funny mess? You decide.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "PG-13" for some language.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.