There’s no other filmmaker quite like Mike Leigh working in the industry at the moment. He fleshes out sincere human dramas out from mundane, everyday lives and transforms them into compassionate, wise films about the foibles of modern life. Some may accuse him as a miserablist, favouring tragic circumstances to optimism in his body of work, see Naked and Vera Drake – but we’ve somehow discounted Leigh’s ability to find hope, empathy and quiet acceptance of life’s vicissitudes even in the most crushingly prosaic, workaday existence. It’s hard to imagine any other director who would make such films as Happy-Go-Lucky and Life is Sweet, where ordinariness becomes a profound virtue. Another Year is essentially that, a film about sheer mundanity, about the cyclical essence of life, the repeating seasons, the people that come and go. It’s a film about afternoon tea, dinner with friends, garden conversations, attending funerals, about happiness and the sheer lack of it. Where it eschews plot, it makes up for its perceptive, often penetrating, observations of human fallibility and utterly believable characterisations of people you feel you might have met, or known before. This is Leigh’s consummate skill as a screenwriter – his vital understanding of people we all can relate to – and if there’s any film in his entire oeuvre this closely resembles to, it’s the Life is Sweet.
Some may argue that there isn’t much happening in Another Year, but such imbeciles have completely ignored that everything is happening in the lives of the these people – a middle-aged couple, Tom and Gerri, are staunchly fighting together to protect their nest of happiness and contentment when a family friend, the lonely, needy Mary (a riveting Lesley Manville), unconsciously threatens to upset the equilibrium; a son brings home his first love, a brother-in-law gets bereaved, a depressed workmate seeks consolation – all these people gather around the central couple’s private property as a refuge. The great nuance in Leigh’s writing is in not reducing his characters in caricatures, but allowing them to be real, vividly alive human beings. Tom and Gerri may be beautifully contented about their domestic stability, but at the face of the desperate, lonely souls rallying around them, they may also be smug about their happiness. Take for example, Mary – a single baby-woman in existential distress lurking beneath her chirrupy personality who sees Tom and Gerri’s happiness as a reminder to her own bitter, traumatic romantic hopelessness. Manville, who delivers a showmaking performance, makes Mary quietly sympathetic and ultimately tragic, the embodiment of the film’s best line: “Life isn’t always kind, is it?” Leigh’s thesis may be that in real life, happiness cannot exist without sadness, and vice-versa. There’s always a need for the other. Without the sad people around Tom and Gerri, they wouldn’t have fully realised how fortunate they are. Without Tom and Gerri, Mary wouldn’t have known what sort of happiness she’s desperately seeking to have. The only difference is that lonely people are quite on their own.
A brilliant testament to Leigh’s status as one of the finest, most humane filmmakers around. Another Year is a sterling work, beautifully nuanced, layered and performed, most especially by Lesley Manville, capturing authentic, beating life onscreen. And believe me, portraying real life in 24 frames per second is never easy.