On the surface, Mike Leigh makes movies about the humdrum lives of ordinary people, but there’s nothing humdrum about the psychological revelations he brings forth, and his people are far too acutely observed to seem ordinary.
His latest movie, “Another Year,” is a quintessential Mike Leigh performance. It deepens as it goes along until, in the end, in its final close-up, it overwhelms. Leigh’s movies have a way of sneaking up on you. The mundane morphs into moments of shattering emotional power. This is why Leigh is often described in Chekhovian terms. Like Chekhov, Leigh at his best has a resounding feeling for the sorrows and delusions of people who are trying to make it through life without being swallowed up by fate.
In its focus on the sadness of the middle class, “Another Year” may seem like generic Leigh, but there’s a twist here. At its center is, for a change, a happy couple: Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geological engineer nearing retirement – “I dig holes!” he explains – and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a psychological counselor in a medical clinic. These two, with their frayed bohemianism, are entirely comfortable with themselves.
They spend quality time year-round puttering in their garden, and the film itself takes place over the course of a year, with sections keyed to the four seasons, beginning with spring. Throughout the cycle Tom and Gerri host a succession of friends and family in their comfortably ramshackle North London home. The human interactions require as much weeding and pruning and cultivating as the garden.
Tom and Gerri’s contentment is presented as a given. It is also what attracts the friends and malcontents who enjoy their hospitality. They want to be happy and, without quite realizing it, they look to Tom and Gerri for a key to unlock the dungeon door. (If Leigh had provided Tom and Gerri with a few deep rifts of their own, kept out of sight of their friends, the film would have been even more darkly comic than it is.)
The central guest, who appears in all four sections, is Mary (Lesley Manville), a longstanding friend of Gerri’s who works as a receptionist at the clinic. An attractive divorced woman closing in on 50, Mary acts and dresses several decades younger than her age.
Her giggly desperation is transparent. Tom, who is easygoing but not without his quick darts of temper, tolerates her. Gerri is more indulgent. At times she seems to relate to Mary more as a clinical therapist than as a friend, and this gives her a slightly forbidding, unsympathetic aspect. But Tom and Gerri are right to keep some slight distance between themselves and Mary, especially when, midway through the movie, she oversteps the line. In her own flighty way, Mary sucks up the air in the room. (She also sucks up the wine.) She’s as expansively deluded as Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Her biggest delusion is that Tom and Gerri’s 30-year-old son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), whom she has known since boyhood, is interested in her. Unlike his parents, Joe sees what Mary is up to with him. Her wispy entreaties to meet him for a drink are met with broad, pasty smiles. In his own way, Joe, who is a community lawyer, is as therapeutically inclined as his mother. Despite everything, he has a fondness for Mary, and he indulges her without leading her on.
Manville’s performance at first seems too tricky and cluttered. Compared with the naturalness of the rest of the cast, she appears to bear down on us from behind footlights. But it makes sense that Mary carries on like a distressed diva. She dramatizes her life as a way of investing it with meaning, with complication. Without the tumult she would be ineffably lonely. She is anyway, especially when she is around other people. By the end, she has no more arrows in her perfumed quiver. Leigh gives us a long lingering shot of her, and she is, for the first time in the movie, very still.
Leigh works up his scripts from only the barest of outlines, and films only after months of rehearsal and improvisation, and this perhaps explains why the characters and situations seem so lived-in. People with only minimal amounts of screen time have a novelistic amplitude.
Tom’s childhood friend Ken (Peter Wight) is a perfect instance. He bustles his way into the North London home, and immediately we think we know who he is. Chunky and expansive, he wears a T-shirt that says “Less thinking, more drinking.” But he drinks to blot out the dead-endedness of his days, and his woe is so unsheathed that even Tom, who is pacific by nature, recognizes that something must be done. At one point Gerri looks over at Ken and mutters, “Life is not always kind,” and when she says this, it’s as if Leigh was laying a benediction on Ken and all others like him. There is an infinite kindness in how Leigh brings these people to the fore. He doesn’t humiliate them. He respects their pathos.
When Mary, for example, explains away her wayward life by saying, “I blame my big heart,” we can spot her delusion, and yet, she does have a big heart. She tells Gerri that she is “a very good listener,” and what she is really saying is: “Tell me the secret of your happiness.” Who cannot identify with that? Leigh does not set these people apart from us. They are us. Grade: A. (Rated PG-13 for some language.)