British directing vet Mike Leigh's filmmaking process has always been unorthodox, but steadfastly tried and true. In lieu of writing a complete script and shooting what's on the page, he hires actors and puts them through an improvisational workshop where they discover and build upon their characters. From this, themes and ideas naturally unfold and a narrative is created. For Leigh, it has always first and foremost been about the people in front of the camera. If a story presents itself along the way, well, that's just gravy. In sharply realized human snapshots like 1996's "Secrets & Lies" and 2002's "All or Nothing," Leigh pulls off this tricky method with ample aplomb. In other cases, like 2008's "Happy-Go-Lucky
" and now "Another Year," the spare parts don't quite congeal into a satisfying whole. The viewer waits for a premise of some kind to take shape, but none does. Unfocused and rambling, Leigh's last two films serve to showcase a top-notch, awards-worthy lead female performance (Sally Hawkins was indisputably great in "Happy-Go-Lucky
"), then takes the actress nowhere special. Movies typically require a little more than just that to work.
Tom (Jim Broadbent) is a geologist working, quite literally, with rocks. Gerri (Ruth Sheen) is a health clinic counselor. Skating beyond middle age and as happily married as the day of their wedding decades ago, the two of them have made a solid life for themselves and go about their days in well-adjusted contentment. Indeed, even their 30-year-old son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), is good-natured and even-keeled. Little by little, into their world comes Mary (Lesley Manville), a longtime secretarial co-worker of Gerri's whose chirpy personality almost convincingly shields her unhappiness until she's got a few drinks in her. Mary likens herself good friends of Tom and Gerrishe's known them since Joe was ten, and now that he's older she might even have a thing for him, toobut as an average year in all their lives passes by, a few overstepped boundaries forces her to face the sad actuality of her perpetually working-class, paycheck-to-paycheck existence and the loneliness she is unsure she'll ever be able to escape.
With the exception of a terminally depressed patient named Janet (Imelda Staunton) who stops into the clinic for a riveting two-scene cameo before never being heard from again, the most fascinating character on display in "Another Year" is easily Mary. An attractive woman who, at the age of fifty, give or take a few years, probably used to be more attractive but has squandered her younger adulthood on bad men, Mary is hungry for companionship. She wants a relationship like the one Tom and Gerri share and figures, consciously or not, that if she can't have that, she can at least be near it by latching onto them. Mary means well, certainly, but she can't always hide the cracks within her upbeat facade. Again and again, she is reminded of what she doesn't have, and this realization stings like poison.
Lesley Manville (2009's "A Christmas Carol
") is a stunner as the quietly tragic Mary, the kind of life of the party until she wakes up the next day to an empty house and nary a note on the nightstand. Now that she's older and more serious about a permanent significant otheror, at the least, someone to share her life withher options are alarmingly limited. No matter what emotion she is trying to convey or attempting to shield, it is written across Manville's expressive face with such deceiving ease it's like she's never actually acting. If Mary is the one we want to follow, then chalk it up as a creative misstep that director Mike Leigh casts her as almost a supporting player in her own story. Told largely from the points-of-view of Tom and Gerri, the film only pays attention to Mary in her interactions with them and their family and acquaintances. Never do we see Mary's home life, nor do we get more than a fleeting early glimpse of her work. By placing the audience in the same perspective as Tom and Gerri, Leigh makes the grave mistake of almost looking down upon Mary as a child, or a pest, or someone to at least pity. This, then, directly clashes with what is otherwise supposed to be an empathetic character study.
As the seasons change and Mary struggles for acceptance, she too often is downshifted into the background to make way for peripheral participants. They're there to back up the film's message that not everyone gets what they wantTom's visiting heart attack-bound college friend Ken (Peter Wight) mourns the act of aging, while Tom's older brother Ronnie (David Bradley) mourns the death of his spousebut this onslaught of miserable people thrown at Tom and Gerri is contrived and feels like overkill. Scenes upon scenes of chatty conversation fail to push the story forward, while the rare conflictlike one between Gerri and Maryfrustratingly occurs offscreen. The point of "Another Year" is in the titlethis is just another average year for all, just like the one before and the one afterbut that is not reason enough for the film to be so inert. By the end, no matter how much the viewer has grown to care about and root for Mary, it's all for naught; she has been stripped of a notable arc and is in the same place she was at the beginning. That is no doubt Mike Leigh's intention, but it doesn't make for good drama or a fulfilling experience. Eventually, somethinganything
has to happen. To not give Mary even the smallest of catharses is creatively pretentious, cruel to her and unfair to the audience.