Mike Leigh is synonymous with kitchen sink drama but he made quite a departure from the norm two years ago with the release of Happy-Go-Lucky. Now, the writer-director we know and love is back with an observational ensemble drama.
It makes a change to see a middle-aged, happily married couple at the heart of a film but it soon becomes apparent that it is not Tom and Gerri (yes, the hilarity of the names is referred to in the film) that we should be focusing on. You see, as happy as Tom and Gerri are in their relationship and in their jobs (Tom is a geologist and Gerri is a counsellor), their friends are not. Mary, Gerri’s colleague, is a receptionist, divorced and childless and living in a flat on her own – she’s like a cat lady without the cats. Tom’s friend Ken is also single and not remotely a catch; he’s overweight, smokes and drinks too much and doesn’t exactly dress well. Mary is attracted to a certain kind of man and spends most of her time rebuffing Ken’s advances in favour of spending time flirting with her friend’s 30-year-old son.
Another Year is a film in four parts. Divided into seasons, we follow Tom and Gerri throughout another year of blissful marriage as their friends and relatives drop in and out of their lives. Their son, Joe, begins a new relationship, much to Mary’s dismay, Tom’s sister-in-law passes away and the couple spend some quality time together working on their allotment. The action that takes place on screen is all pretty mundane, day-to-day stuff but the beauty of the film is in its simplicity.
The cast consists of a plethora of Mike Leigh regulars. Jim Broadbent (Life is Sweet, Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake) and Ruth Sheen (Secrets and Lies, All or Nothing, Vera Drake) star as the contented couple and Lesley Manville (Secrets and Lies, Topsy-Turvy, All or Nothing, Vera Drake) steals the show as the kooky Mary. It’s in the scenes that the three share that I can’t help seeing Mary as an older Bridget Jones. She’s the unlucky singleton that all the smug marrieds pity but rely on to make themselves feel better. Although here, come the end of the film, you realize that this really is just Another Year. Nothing will change. In many films with relationships at the centre of the plot, there is usually some sort of transformation, most often a couple gets together or breaks up. In Mike Leigh’s observational drama, we’re reminded of the banality of life, relationships and growing old. Nothing changes. The central characters are in the same position at the end of the film as they were at the start, with the exception of Joe who is now in a relationship.
Lesley Manville’s Mary is the emotional centre of the film and it is her that any singletons in the audience will automatically identify with, regardless of their age. As a twenty-something, I came out of the screening terrified that I was going to end up like her. And it’s not just a single gal thing – a friend of mine is in a perfectly happy relationship yet still terrified of the possibility of becoming a Mary!
Despite the somewhat serious undertones of the film, it isn’t light on laughs. Jim Broadbent is his usual dry, sarcastic self and there is a lot of humour to be found in the side glances and raised eyebrows exchanged between Tom and Gerri. In fact, the audience laughed out loud more during Another Year than in Leigh’s most comedic film, Happy-Go-Lucky.
I’d be tempted to advise you to avoid this if you’re not of a certain age or in a stable relationship, but the script is so authentic and the film itself is so brilliantly executed that it would be a shame for anyone interested in the inner workings of relationships (romantic or otherwise) to miss out.