Another Year (2010)
Directed by Mike Leigh
U.K. Thin Man Films, 129 mins. PG-13
* * * *
Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Jeri (Ruth Sheen) are a lucky couple and they know it. They’re in the autumn of their lives, have a nice home in suburban London, enjoy good food and wine, like to garden, and are successful professionals--he a geologist on engineering projects and she a therapist. They’re well heeled, well read, well traveled, and well loved. About the only thing that troubles them if whether their thirty-year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman) will find a steady girlfriend.
That and the fact that they keep bumping into people who are desperately unhappy. There’s Mary (Lesley Manville), the secretary at the hospital at which Jeri works--a man-hungry faded floozy who would have been a knockout twenty-five years earlier but hasn’t adjusted her wardrobe, behavior, or alcohol consumption to adjust to being in her fifties. And there’s Tom’s old college mate Ken (Peter Wright), a bitter divorcee whose become a sloppy, sweaty whale who scarfs away junk-food and downs beer like a hog at the trough. There’s also Tom’s older brother Ronnie (David Bradley), a man as inarticulate as Tom is witty; Ronnie’s just lost his wife and he long ago lost civil contact with his angry son Carl (Martin Savage), a confrontational punk and a waste of genetic material.
As we follow Tom and Jeri through a perfectly dreadful social year, only Joe’s new girlfriend, the bubbly, resilient, and funny Katie (Karina Fernandez) offers relief from the boozy, troubled hangers-on who want to live vicariously through them. And even Katie’s presence carries some tension as Mary has become so desperate than she’s allowed herself to think that maybe she could be Joe’s intended! Another Year has been billed as comedy-drama, but it’s hard to find a lot of humor in all of this. There’s a deep sadness at this film’s very core and watching people like Mary, Ken, Ronnie, and Carl is a bit like watching a surgery that’s likely to result in a corpse instead of restored health.
Some critics have accused Mike Leigh--known for his bleak insights into working-class despair--of having gone soft. I would submit that they have woefully misunderstood this film, which is every bit as focused on social class as earlier Leigh films such as High Hopes, Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake. Tom and Jeri are kind, generous, and they try to be helpful, but they are thoroughly bourgeois in one regard: they’ve no idea how to enter the minds of working-class people. Leigh sets this up early when veteran British actress Imelda Staunton turns a cameo as an obviously distressed older woman who comes to a London hospital seeking sleeping pills for her insomnia. Her doctor recognizes immediately that her problem is depression, not insomnia, but all her middle-class platitudes are lost on Staunton, who just wants the damn tablets. You know as sure as the sun comes up she will not be scheduling time to talk with a counselor. Enter Jeri, who is a therapist, but one whose clientele is either middle class or under court order to come to her and whom she finds resistant. Well, yes, seeking therapy is what middle-class people do when they’re troubled, but it’s certainly not the default position for the working class. Neither Tom nor Jeri seem to realize that they are essentially enablers for Mary, who creeps them out as she draws closer inside their family. They just continue to be nice and utter “Oh dear” in private. The make-nice attitude shows up later. Just as Tom is on the verge of calling out Carl for being the arrogant little prick he really is, Jeri stops him. Well, wouldn’t want any unpleasantness, would we? In many ways Another Year is a subtle savaging of the helping profession.
The other subtle thing Leigh does is make the miscommunication a tragedy, not an indictment. Tom and Jeri really are nice people and they’d do anything to help. The problem, simply, is that they don’t speak the same language as Mary or Ken or Ronnie or Carl. No one’s to blame, really; it’s the kind of misunderstanding that happens when a foreign word with no exact English meaning gets translated into an approximate term.
Another Year can be a tough film to watch, but see it you should. The acting is amazing throughout. Jim Broadbent is always a delight, but if anything he’s outshone by Ruth Sheen. It’s wonderful to see an older woman, complete with her double chin, get a lead such as this and she is more than up the task. Clichés speak of the glow of mature women, but Sheen projects it. And best of all is Lesley Manville, who plays Mary as just one bend short of a full train wreck. Manville should have been nominated and won Best Supporting Actress for this role.