Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Review: "Another Year"
It's perhaps no surprise there isn't much in the way of narrative in "Another Year," since it's a movie composed largely by actors.
Yes, Brit director Mike Leigh wrote the screenplay -- even receiving an Oscar nomination for it. But like many of his films, it was written over the course of months with the cast continually improvising dialogue and scenes, which were incorporated into the script when it came time to shoot. Leigh's an auteur of group efforts.
The result is a film of wonderful performances, but few happenings. It's less pure storytelling than a peek inside a small circle of people who feel authentic and three-dimensional. An audience isn't so much watching them do things as visiting with them and observing their conversations and interactions.
I found "Another Year" highly engaging but not entirely satisfying. While never dull, it can't escape a certain sense of cyclical malaise. Even the title and framing device of dividing the tale into the four seasons lend a sense of inevitability and familiarity.
Things revolve around Tom and Gerri, an upper-middle-class London couple of late middle years. He's a geologist, she's a psychiatric counselor, and they enjoy the unspectacular comforts of a nice little home and a gardening plot in the country.
Played marvelously by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, they're a happy couple and good people, but not flawless. They take a certain amount of delight in indulging the flaws and vices of their circle of acquaintanceships. They love nothing more than inviting a few of them over, and exchanging knowing looks and half-smiles as their guests make fools of themselves.
Tom and Gerri aren't necessarily taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, but they certainly don't make any grand efforts to guide these so-called friends out of the dead ends of their own making. They've taken "live and let live" and turned it into a source for their own amusement.
Their chief guest and entertainer is Mary (Lesley Manville), a co-worker of Gerri whose love life is a shambles. In her 50s but dressing like a 20-something tart, Mary's need for companionship seems to dominate her entire personality. At the same time, this chatterbox can't stop talking about how great her life is going and how excited she is about the future.
Perhaps Mary needs her bubble of perpetual optimism, otherwise she'd realize how miserable she is.
Mary even carries on a flirtation with Joe (Oliver Maltman), Tom and Gerri's 30-year-old son. At first her come-ons seem playful and tongue-in-cheek, until he brings home a girlfriend (Karina Fernandez) and we see how crushed she is. Mary probably didn't really aspire to a relationship with Joe, but it's a reminder of her diminishing options.
Ironically, Mary has her own admirer, Ken (Peter Wight), another acquaintance of Tom and Gerri. Divorced and overweight, Ken is a two-fisted drinker -- literally. He's at retirement age, but can't imagine quitting, because what would he do with his life? His existence consists of his job, and drinking so he can forget about his job.
It makes us wonder: Do Tom and Gerri have any real friendships with people they consider their equals? Can they even conceive of the idea that to someone else, they are the Mary and Ken of that social circle? I suspect the answer on both counts is no.
Imelda Staunton has a small role as Janet, a woman suffering from crippling depression who comes to see Gerri for help. She's unresponsive, can't sleep, is irritable and morose. Asked what she would like to improve her life, she dully responds, "Another life." Janet is a woman completely at the end of her rope, her path leading to some kind of major upheaval or tragedy.
In any other movie, Janet's crisis would be a breaking point in the plot. But "Another Year," it's merely decoration. After a couple of scenes, Janet disappears, never to be heard from again, and we wonder why the film bothered introducing her to be dismissed so abruptly.
I enjoyed the time I spent with Tom, Gerri and the gang, but I think the aesthetic of this sort of filmmaking has a built-in set of diminishing returns.
If the goal is not to dramatize real life but depict it in all its untidiness and ungilded, quotidian banality, then the more successful the movie is the less necessary it becomes -- and people realize they don't need to buy a ticket to have the experience.
3 stars out of four