Friday, February 4, 2011

Another Year (****)

Written and Directed by Mike Leigh


You may never see a film that appreciates faces the way that Another Year does. Not the kind of faces we're used to staring at in most Hollywood films, but a different kind. Faces with cracks and crevasses, absent of protruding chins or perfectly slim noses. The film opens and closes with two spectacular shots of faces that express such a bevy of emotions including: despair, heartbreak, loneliness, perhaps a slight glimpse of hope. Mike Leigh has never been interested in manipulated movie beauty, and Another Year's list of faces includes many English acting veterans like Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Peter Wight, and Imelda Staunton. Some may prefer the faces of Megan Fox or Chaning Tatum, and those certainly are more aesthetically pleasing faces, but Mike Leigh can't tell this solemn tale with those faces, because those faces can't tell this kind of story.

Tom (Broadbent) and Gerri (Sheen) are married, and we can tell that they have been so for many decades. Their dependence on one another is not needy or uneven, but complimentary. They garden and cook together. Tom is an engineer and Gerri is a behavioral counselor at a hospital. They have a son named Joe (Oliver Maltman) who visits ever so often and is filled with as much joy and charm as his parents. They are a happily married couple, possessing a sense of stability that seems almost impossible to most people. So, it makes sense that they have a lot of unhappy friends who latch onto them in an attempt to acquire some of that happiness; namely Mary (Manville), a secretary who works with Gerri, whose desperation to cure her loneliness constantly clouds any sense of reason she may have with reality. When invited to a dinner with Tom and Gerri, she comes prepared with a cleavage-blooming outfit... just in case.

After a few drinks, Mary usually will expound on her woeful tale on getting married too young and finally falling in love too late. But Tom and Gerri have heard this story before, so they just let her bottom out and send her to bed. Tom and Gerri also have a friend name Ken (Wight), who smokes too much and carries a belly in front of him the size of a wrecking ball. He can't seem to find a shirt that'll fit him. But he's a funny, jovial sort of fellow, and Tom and Gerri are more than happy to have him over. Ken likes Mary and his eyes light up when she arrives at the home. But Mary doesn't fancy herself someone who would demean herself with someone like Ken. Instead, she wastes her time trying to cozy up to Joe. It doesn't matter that she's known him since he was a ten-year-old boy. In several cringe-worthy moments, Mary embarrasses herself flirting with and grabbing Joe, and he does his best to humor her, but mostly because he doesn't want to hurt her feelings.

I can understand why these people would connect themselves to Tom and Gerri. Their modest home is like a haven for good spirits, and their own unbelievable chemistry and unflinching commitment after so many years seems like an ideal in a time where most marriages crash and burn. They are very similar, both incredibly warm and kind. But their slight differences make their relationship stronger. Gerri is more patient and its easier for her to stand Mary's advances toward her son, while Tom is more outspoken, never being able to buy into the B.S. that certain people like Ken and Mary display in their search for self-pity and compliments. They're a solid rock in a field of hollow stones. They're not walkovers either. You should see their seamless expressions of disappointment when Joe brings home his new girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez), and Mary decides to use that moment to make an ugly scene. They're there for their friends, but never ahead of their family.

This film was recently nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award (as Leigh has been several times before), though Leigh's dependence on long-winded improvisations from his actors makes you wonder where the screenplay is. Does it matter? Maybe if this material were in other hands, but Leigh is a true cinematic master and he shows it with this film. Consider Secrets & Lies, Naked, or the more recent Happy-Go-Lucky. All films that were more interested in observing its characters than having them follow some hackneyed plot point, and Another Year follows that tradition. Do Tom and Gerri represent stability? Does Mary represent regret? Does Joe represent exuberant youth? If you're looking for that kind of stuff, I'm sure you can find it. But Leigh's films doesn't let that overtake what he's most interested in. Leigh is more interested in having Tom represent Tom and Gerri represent Gerri.

When the film premiered in Cannes in early 2010, most of the noise being made was about Lesley Manville's performance. And in a film that is wall-to-wall with tremendous acting from Broadbent, Wight, and everyone else, Manville is able to stand out. Mary is a total train wreck emotionally, doing her best to hide her real age, even to herself. She throws fits like a sixteen-year-old, but always comes crawling back like a haggard dog. It probably seems like quite the achievement to upset the mild-mannered Tom and Gerri, but she does have moments of charm. It's a testament toward the greatness of Manville that this pathetic person never becomes uninteresting or redundant, always making room for a bit of warmth to shine through. That Manville wasn't able to crack through for an Oscar nomination is a bit of shame, but its a rarely seen English film, and the Academy only likes England if its the England from WWII (**cough**The King's Speech**cough**).

The film is broken into four segments: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Each part with a different tone and visual look. With each rotating season, things evolve and people fall in and out of trouble. The only thing that stays the same throughout is Tom, Gerri and their lovely home. Another Year is so poignant and graceful in its swaying through themes of growing old and friendship. And my God, those faces. At the beginning, it's a tight scowl coming from a disgruntled insomniac (Imelda Staunton, in a very brief but effective appearance). Before the film's end, it's the wallowing, depreciating face of Mary. It's the kind of image that sums up this kind of film perfectly; the kind of film that tells the truth about life. As Gerri wisely says at one moment in the film, life is not always kind to people, but Tom and Gerri is a testament to one thing: if you look hard enough, real happiness is possible.

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