Directed by Mike Leigh
2010. 129 minutes.
CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS
Mike Leigh has a dedicated band of actors who are prepared to put in the enormous preparation which is the hallmark of his movies. Imagine improvising in character for days or weeks. In Mike Leigh films like Another Year the result of the effort is tangible. No other movies are acted quite like this.
Another Year takes place over four seasons, starting in spring and moving through to winter. Each season is punctuated by the central characters, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), working harmoniously on their allotment. Tom and Gerri are nearing retirement, as Leigh keeps his focus on the generation which has aged along with their director.
Gerri & Tom in domestic bliss
Gerri is a counsellor at a doctors’ practice; Tom is a geologist working on building a huge new London sewer. (Yes, OK, I’ve never met anyone aged near 60 called Gerri either. I assume it’s short for Geraldine.) They’re a closely pair-bonded couple. They met in 1968, forty years before the story takes place, on their first day at Manchester University where they were in the same hall of residence, and that was it for life. (Yes, OK. There were very few mixed halls of residence in 1968). They’re happy, well-adjusted to their life together, and motoring smoothly towards retirement.
The film begins in a doctor’s surgery where the doctor, Tanya, (Michele Austin) is seen only as an ebony arm, examining a severely unhappy Janet (Imelda Staunton). Janet has chronic insomnia, hasn’t slept for months and wants sleeping pills. Janet’s despair is in tight close up throughout, as Tanya fishes for the roots of her problem. Yes, Janet’s desperately unhappy. She sees the cause as not having slept properly in months. Tanya ticks all the correct medical boxes, and is convinced that underlying deep depression is the cause. Tanya does the “Thou shalt not” beloved of the medical profession in refusing to prescribe more than a week’s tablets, and refers her to a counsellor. Enter Gerri. Gerri again ticks all the right conventional boxes with all the right questions. But Janet doesn’t want counselling-by-numbers. She wants a night’s sleep. We don’t meet her again. As in life, she’s a powerful personality who appears, and is never met again. It’s a brilliant performence by Staunton. Why is this never-to-be-seen-again person given so much prominence in this short, pre-title sequence beginning? To me, it’s to show Gerri at work. Ticking the boxes, using the right psychology (101, i.e. first year) techniques, but in reality unable to really help, or indeed genuinely empathize. This is central to the film.
Gerri and Mary: Pissed again
Gerri finishes the session and chats to Mary, the practice secretary. They go for a drink after work, then Mary is a guest for dinner at their home. Mary (Lesley Manville) is the central character in the film. In contrast to the happily married and somewhat smug Tom and Gerri, Mary is lonely, desperately needy and a drunk. Somehow, Tom and Gerri attract lonely, desperate people with serious alcohol issues. There’s Mary; then in the summer section story, their old university friend Ken (Peter Wright); and in the winter story, Tom’s brother, Ronnie (David Bradley). Both Mary and Ken recount a catalogue of failed past relationships. The unifying marker for Mary, Ken and Ronnie is alcohol, plus they’re the only three characters who smoke. Not smoking suavely like a 1940s film hero or heroine, but sucking savagely on cigarettes, braving rain and cold to inhale nicotine. That marks them as losers. You’d guess that Tom and Gerri were once smokers, but no longer. The thing about Mike Leigh films is that the characters are so rich that you make these assumptions about them. You also know somehow that in the endless rehearsals and improvisations that point will have been brought up, chewed over, incorporated invisibly in the personality. But sensible and contented people stopped smoking. Smokers are a lonely band used to standing in dripping doorways to indulge their addiction. It’s not that Tom and Gerri in some way need these people around them constantly, perhaps holding a mirror to reveal their own content in contrast … the visits we see are isolated ones over a year.
Summer: Nicotine & Alcohol: Ken and Mary at the barbecue, summer
Alcohol and nictotine are almost extra characters. Tom and Gerri are social drinkers, probably above average in consumption, but in control. Mary gets so totally plastered every time she visits that she has to collapse in their spare room, boots still on. Lesley Manville’s portrayal of drunkeness is nothing short of brilliant, and sustained over long scenes. That’s a point where we feel that Tom and Gerri are not supposed to be quite as cosily nice as they think they are. They’re the first to pour the raddled alcoholic another libation. Mary doesn’t need counselling at all (as Gerri suggests she does at the end). She needs AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and the support of a group of fellow sufferers. The root of her problem is loneliness and addiction. The cure is people who care; if possible, finding a significant other; not an hour of someone saying So why do you say that you feel … in an office once a week.
Summer: Joe, Mary & Gerri
The thing is, Mary fancies Tom and Gerri’s son, Joe. Well, actually she’s so desperately lonely that she fancies anybody, or at least is prepared to try and persuade herself that she might. Even then she draws the line at the fat, red-faced, unshaven, drunken pal, Ken, at the summer barbecue. Though again, while it might be unsaid, we know Ken must have attempted a feeble fumble in a previous year’s summer barbecue. She’s repelled by him. Who isn’t? Incidentally, Phil Davis, one of my favourite actors, has a cameo as Jack in the golfing scene with Ken, and at the barbecue. He’s another lonely one (his wife is too ill to attend).
Joe is pleasant and friendly, even encouraging, but carefully sidesteps all Mary’s come-ons. The big, big scene is in the autumn sequence where Joe turns up with his new girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez) and it’s serious. Mary’s twisted expressions of bitterness and jealousy are a tour de force, a performance that could be used to demonstrate film acting for years to come. That’s when Gerri and Tom begin to realize they’ve had enough of Mary at last. This time she’s not asked to sleep it off on the spare room, but dispatched into the night (there is a very funny sub-plot about her car). She doesn’t get another drink. Tellingly Tom and Gerri are shown after she’s gone home, each with a glass of wine in hand.
Things get worse in winter, which starts with a funeral. You wonder whose funeral too. Ken is the most likely, as he looked ready to pop off with a heart attack at any moment. Jack’s wife is another possible. But in fact Gerri, Tom and Joe are driving to Derby for the funeral of Ronnie’s wife, Hilda. Brother Ronnie has stayed in the tiny, old family home. Ronnie drinks beer from the can, and smokes Golden Virginia roll-ups. Ronnie is monosyllabic. It’s obvious that Tom got education, and Ronnie got Derby and the parental two-up, two-down.
Ronnie’s nasty, estranged and angry son, Carl (Martin Savage), only arrives at the crematorium after the curtains have shut on the coffin. The funeral reveals more about Gerri’s counselling abilities. She knows exactly how to talk to Hilda’s workmates afterwards, and how to invite them to the house. She does it well. When Carl gets aggressive and abusive, she goes into the kitchen and asks two carefully-placed leading questions. Very professional, maybe she’s getting through to him. Then when he inevitably turns nasty at the misguided third one (So, are you working now?), she just gives up and walks away. So would I have done, but I’m not a counsellor. The taciturn one-word reply man, Ronnie, is invited back to London … for a few days. Period.
Winter: Ronnie & Mary have a roll-up
The last scene has Mary in the house, having turned up uninvited and having forced Ronnie to let her in. Our happy couple are scraping frost off cabbages at the allotment. It’s clear that she and Gerri have had an offscreen row. It’s clear when Joe and Katie arrive that the family has joked about Mary in her absence. There are issues. We know that everyone except Ronnie and Mary has been to university. Mary flies off the handle when Katie asks if Mary did a secretarial course. She’s defensive and offended at the assumption, but as Gerri points out, she did. And she is a secretary. Elitism, there. The friendly dinner party discussion shows Mary, alone in the middle of company, isolated, still desperate, looking twenty years older too. The end.
It’s a powerful movie. What is not obvious, reading the above, that like most Mike Leigh, it is painfully and excruciatingly funny many, many times. The guys behind us in the cinema were audibly exasperated and bored throughout, but even they enjoyed the running jokes about Mary’s car.