Another Year Shows Social Classes Talking Past Each Other

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.


Javier Bardem Masterful in Biutiful Says London Reviewer


Dir: Alejandro Inarritu

* * * *

Starring: Javier Bardem

Inarittu has never taken the easy route. Amores Perros and 21 Grams testify to this. In Biutiful he navigates the downward slide of Uxbal (Bardem) as he stalks the low-rent back streets of Barcelona - involved in all manner of scams with illegal immigrants and avoiding the police. But there’s a twist – he has prostate cancer and because he’s never had regular check –ups, doctors give him just weeks to live. He’s separated from his wife who suffers from a bipolar disorder – his scenes with her have a bruised quality as he tries to protect his kids from the obvious arguments and upheavals-but Bardem is so effective here. He struggles to maintain a sense of right, even when tragedy strikes (partly his own fault) to a bunch of Chinese immigrants working in a sweatshop. The film’s beating heart is truly Bardem’s and his alone. His tortured face bleeds across almost every frame as the film’s washed-out colours turn the city of Gaudí into a kind of purgatory. The message here though is surely whether the trials and tribulations of the world cause us to withdraw or reach out. Deep in Uxbal’s mind is the sense that reaching out, no matter how slim, is better though his withdrawal is a powerful demon. It’s a reminder that compassion isn’t always a rational decision.

On paper though, it sounds a mess. It’s like another poor wretch on a downhill dance and the role offers Bardem innumerable chances to chew the scenery. Instead, his work is a model of restraint: he invests the role with an affecting, sad-eyed dignity that keeps the story grounded. After the dreadful Babel and (some say, but not I) 21 Grams, Inarritu sticks his head above the parapet and aims high and succeeds. Phoenix will take me to task for loving a film so monumentally depressing but there’s some humour and heart here in a film assembled on instinct rather than reflection.

Lloyd Sellus

Lorne MacDougall Makes the Bagpipes Dance


Hello World

Greentrax 345

Here is a debut bagpipe album that’s so good it will change the minds of pipe skeptics. At turns precise and electrifying, MacDougall’s skill and energy more than justify his two-time inclusion in the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. Lovers of the Celtic “big set” will thrill to “The Gravel Walk,” a full-bodied Highland pipes tour de force set amidst Duncan Lyall’s bass, James MacKintosh’s drum kit, and Ross Kennedy’s bouzouki. It’s even more impressive when one realizes that the first tune is actually MacDougall’s arrangement of a Gaelic song learnt from Julie Fowlis. He wisely lets us cool down by following with “Waltz of Slurs” on Border and small pipes, and then the slower “Lament for Small Isles Bay,” a melancholic air made all the more poignant by Martin Simpson playing guitar as if channeling Ry Cooder. “Waltz” is one of several pieces in which MacDougall showcases his talent by rapidly repeating the same notes stutter-style and holding others to their breath-defying limits. This is an album of many moods in which MacDougall mixes light and pastoral tunes like “The Manx Minxes” on whistle, with the gale force of the Highland pipes (“Fardach na Pioba”), and the bright pips of the small pipes (“Learning to Fly”). It’s also one of varying musical feels that range from the Spanish spices of “Trip to Aviles” to the stark simplicity of “The Magic Flute” and the formal piobaireachd feel of “MacDougall’s Gathering.” Produced by Brian McNeill, this isn’t just an impressive debut; it’s one of the best albums you’ll hear this calendar year.


Organized Labor: Agincourt or Waterloo?

Will Wisconsin be organized labor's Waterloo?

In 1415, King Henry V found himself trapped by French forces numbering more than 25,000. Against all odds, Henry’s band of around 8500 managed to route the superior French forces and inflict a 10:1 casualty rate upon them.

Turn the clock forward 400 years to the year 1815. Near Waterloo, Belgium, a similarly sized army led by the Duke of Wellington defeated 69,000 troops commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon spent the last six years of his life exiled on a floating rock known as St. Helena.

Why the ancient history lesson? Jump ahead almost 300 years and look at Wisconsin. Make no mistake about it--the unfolding drama in Wisconsin will determine whether organized labor is fighting its Agincourt or is about to suffer its Waterloo. If labor loses this one, it can’t win anywhere and will soon be as defunct as its ancient roots: the guild system of Henry V’s time.

Only a foolish optimist or AFL-CIO public relations hack would deny that organized labor is reeling. Fewer than 12% of American workers belong to unions and, at present, any industry that is subject to being moved is practically unorganizable (and will remain barring the unlikely event that Congress amends existing labor laws to protect them). The only glimmer of hope has been in public unions and among workers whose jobs can’t be moved: teachers, civil servants, medical personnel, selected service-industry workers…. If Governor Scott Walker manages to strip away collective bargaining rights from these workers, there will be nothing left upon which organized labor could rebuild and the only unionized workers left with clout will be movie stars and professional athletes. (And you can probably start the countdown on their demise as well.)

Is Wisconsin broke? Yes it is. Does Walker truly have no other recourse? That’s a crock of crap and he knows it. Governors always have other options and the fact that he has chosen a battle with public employees must be called what it is: an ideologically driven attempt to smash unions. (One small example. Wisconsin could cut 20% from the department of corrections and save over $200 million.) Budget cuts always involve a choice of which cows will be led to the abattoir and we all know that Republicans want labor to be in that herd (along with publicly funded arts, women’s programs, pensions, social security, and anything that the private sector hasn’t managed yet to plunder).

Okay, so Walker’s a tea bagger sleaze bucket, but let’s not leave the AFL-CIO off the hook either. What we’ve seen in the past four decades is the full bankruptcy of business unionism and the paucity of imagination associated with its brand of craft unionism. The AFL-CIO needs to proclaim a general strike in Wisconsin and bring Walker to his knees. Every union worker in the state needs to be called out. Yes, that would in defiance of existing labor law. In other words, the AFL-CIO needs to treat those laws with the same callous indifference organized capital has been doing for decades. It might get fined and indicted, but it really doesn’t matter. If Wisconsin is lost, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is headed for St. Helena.

Gavin Pennycook Gives Celtic Music a Scandinavian Touch


Celtic Nyckelharpa

Self Produced 002

Insofar as he can tell, Gavin Pennycook (ex of Deaf Shepherd) has recorded the very first collection of Celtic tunes played on the nyckelharpa, a keyed fiddle popular in Sweden. For those who’ve never seen one, it hangs from a strap around one’s neck and has a series of keys that can be depressed to change the pitch. It also has a dozen sympathetic strings and has drone capability. The result is a sound that is resonant and full. The keying also allows for exceedingly smooth transitions within and between tunes. You’ll hear familiar tunes such as “The Pinch of Snuff,” “The Lark in the Morning,” “The Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “The Rights of Man” on this collection, but none of them will sound quite like you’re used to hearing them. Just so you can hear the contrast, Pennycook also throws in both standard and octave-strung fiddles. And if you’re not impressed by all of that, he also plays a bit of Gallician bagpipe on the final track, which blends with Rob Truswell’s guitar, the octave-strung fiddle, and the nyckelharpa to produce a sound akin to forcing a hurdy-gurdy to swallow a biniou. It’s an album of very cool sounds and Pennycook wonders why more people aren’t using the nyckelharpa in Celtic music. A great question!

Check him out on You Tube.