Icon Film Distribution
It's a simple enough premise: a year in the lives of a post-middle aged London couple, their adult son, and their small circle of friends, told in four vignettes correlating with the seasons. But a Mike Leigh film is never that simple.
The Brit director who has a reputation for workshopping his treatments with his cast, discovering his characters and story in the process, and more often than not focusing his gaze on England's working and lower middle classes, has an unflinching eye when it comes to the foibles of his fellow man.
Even when he's in a lighter mood, the gaze can be unforgiving. Leigh's previous film, Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), revolved around the eternally optimistic Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a school teacher who saw life as a glass always half full; a happy zeal bordering on scary. There is a brief moment in that film, where Poppy encounters a homeless man, and we see her permanent smile turned down and we glimpse the possibility that some underlying sadness is being held at bay.
In Another Year, that unhappiness is given full reign in Mary. A post-40, divorced secretary who enjoys one too many glasses of wine, Mary (a heartbreaking serio-comic performance by Lesley Manville) is the poster child for dateless and desperate, a condition brought into sharp focus by the company she keeps: Tom and Gerri.
Best described as ageing hippies, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are as fundamentally happy as Mary is unhappy. When they're not at work (Tom as an engineering geologist; Mary as a counsellor at a medical clinic), the couple tend a plot of vegetables and herbs at their local community garden, host friends for evenings of dinner and wine in their spacious London home, and have a healthy, uncomplicated relationship with their 30-year-old son, Joe (Oliver Maltman).
Over the course of the year, we witness the ebb and flow of Tom and Gerri's lives and the changing dynamic between them and Mary, as her life becomes increasingly unravelled. I'm not sure if Leigh intends us to merely pity Mary and her circumstances or heed it as a warning: singledom is its own kind of hell; partnership is heaven. That's perhaps a rather trite and acute reading of Leigh's intent but if indeed the case, one this reviewer (and confirmed bachelor) takes great exception to.
There's an air of smugness about Tom and Gerri; not only do they have a good life but they seem to surround themselves with damaged people (an old college buddy, Ken (Peter Wight), the male equivalent of Mary, comes to stay with the couple) in order underline their good fortune. They seem to tolerate Mary rather than accept her, and when Gerri has to choose between family and friendship, she callously ends the latter.
That punishment is revealed in the film's final vignette – winter, aptly enough – as is the desperate state of Mary's existence as a consequence. Welcomed back to Tom and Gerri's table, the final shot of Another Year is a silent observation of Mary. It's a terrific performance by Lesley Manville, sadly one that has gone largely unrecognised this awards season. No matter. Awards come and go but Manville's Mary will haunt you.