Art house darling Mike Leigh is known for his improvisational kitchen sink realism. He’s a master of the sort of small talk that isn’t bleak. His films are like Petri dishes on which everyday Brits divide and join like little cells of concentrated emotion. In his latest venture, Another Year, Leigh makes the case for a traditional kind of happiness.
The film, which is broken into four seasonal chapters, each one titled, starts off in the spring, hopeful and quick, and ends in a winter of sickening sadness. The conceit, while cliché, is not at all distracting or disingenuous; it’s only really apparent in retrospect. Tom, a Barbour-clad geologist played by Jim Broadbent, and Gerri, a linen-loving counselor played by Ruth Sheen, live in a domestic bliss of wine breath and garlicky kitchen smells. They’re almost retirement age but still very much in love. He comes home early to cook supper and refutes her self-deprecation; her eyes eat him up from across the dinner table. Their London flat has a well-stocked fridge and lots of bookshelves; they read sweetly in bed, side-by-side. They drive a Volvo. If this were an American movie, they would live in Brooklyn Heights and their son would go to Saint Ann’s. They nurture their crops and nourish their friends, trekking back and forth between the city and their country farmhouse. They serve the vegetables they grow at casual dinner parties.
The previews would have you believe that Tom and Gerri are the film’s nucleus. In actuality, it’s their batty, alcoholic friend Mary (Lesley Manville) who subsumes most of our energy. She’s the frazzled administrator at the hospital where Gerri works — always making plans for after-hours drinks, inviting herself over for dinner, appearing at their doorstep unannounced. It’s unclear why the friendship has been given so much room to grow, though pity is surely a key factor. Tom and Gerri treat her warmly; they give her permission to refill her wine glass and allow her to spend the night when she’s had too much to drink. Mary speaks quickly and often incoherently, presumptuously predicting personal questions and hurriedly consolidating her answers to them. She unfolds totally at certain points and admits to her misery. Though quite beautiful and still shapely, Mary is depressed over her divorce and the “pokey flat” she rents. “Who would I go on holiday with?” she wails one evening when thinking about upcoming vacation days.
But Mary isn’t their only sad sack friend. There’s Carl (Martin Savage), also single, who drinks and cries too much as well. Like Mary, he describes his apartment in an unappealing way. Land ownership, that historically British preoccupation, runs quietly beneath the surface of the film. Their 30-year-old son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), is presented as a lost soul until he brings a girl home and it becomes clear that the relationship is serious. Another Year taxonomizes the world into two castes of people: those who have another person and those who don’t. It’s a bolder and less abstract classification system than most are willing to concede. “…but you deserve it,” Mary says wistfully while praising Gerri’s marriage. “You both are such lovely people.” Tom and Gerri are kind and interesting, and though surely it’s their virtues that brought them together in the first place, their union is what blesses them. The contrast of their miserable friends proves this. You could imagine, despite Tom and Gerri’s generosity, being tortured by their happiness and spiting their self-satisfaction.
The final chapter — Winter — brings a peripheral death and the forging of an unexpected affinity. The film ends with Mary weeping, game face melted off, finally confronting for the first time the totality of her despair. It’s a ruthless last scene, and structurally it confirms what we began to suspect “months” ago: that Tom and Gerri, magnetic as they may be, are not the film’s primary emotional concern. It’s hard to sort out whether their friends and family are happier by association or sadder in comparison. Either way, Leigh suggests that— liberal politics be damned — it’s hearth and home that make life worth living. Cleave to someone or you’re screwed.