I don’t love films in the way that I love books – I enjoy seeing them, but find my short attention span is usually a bit bored by the end, and it’s only the odd one or two that have give me the feelings I get from my favourite books. Usually these are adaptations of novels (I Capture the Castle) or films about authors (Finding Neverland) or both (The Hours). Occasionally a 1930s film will do it, but yesterday I watched a film that moved me and amused me and enthralled me in the way that my favourite novels do. And that film is Another Year, directed by Mike Leigh. The only other Mike Leigh films I’ve seen are Vera Drake, which I thought brilliant, and Abigail’s Party, which works better on stage. I know he uses the same actors many times, and picks those who excel at improvisation – whatever he’s doing, it works.
I saw the trailer a while ago, and thought it looked poignant and well-observed, and it is definitely both those things – but trailers rarely do justice to a film, and the one posted below is no exception. Having not seen it in November, when it was released, I was pleased to spot that it was showing at my favourite cinema in the world – the Ultimate Picture Palace. It’s a one-screen cinema from the 1960s or 1970s, and still very much has that feel. But it’s also incredibly friendly and quirky – they were selling mulled wine and mince pies last night, which were lovely – and shows interesting films, including older ones. Last year I saw Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes there, for example.
Another Year, like so many of the novels I love, is difficult to describe because not much happens. It shows a couple nearing retirement – Tom and Gerri (ho ho) played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen – going through a year of their life, and the lives of their friends. Gerri and Tom are a quietly contented married couple, happy and comfortable with each other, and I have never seen a more realistic portrayal of a normal marriage in film. Their lives are centred around work (Gerri is a counsellor [thanks David!]; Tom is a engineering geologist), the allotment, their son visiting at the weekends, their friends, and being together. There may be a rug waiting to be pulled from under my feet, and perhaps in many films they’d be shown up as smug or too middle class, but Mike Leigh seemed to have the sense simply to show them as they are.
In and out of their lives wander several friends, each slightly dysfunctional, but only in the way that people can be. Nothing unduly zany or far-fetched. Of these characters, although the film is indisputably an ensemble piece, one does stand out – in fact, she is in some ways the heart of the film. That is Mary, played brilliantly by Lesley Manville. She is a 40-something divorcee, lonely and clingy, only just self-aware enough to realise how unself-aware she is. Another Year is clever, though – at first Mary seems simply a chatty, flirty, slightly uncontrolled woman. Only as the film develops does her pain unravel, and manifest itself in bitterness or trying too hard to be the life and soul of a gathering. And yet she is a warm woman, and it is impossible to dislike her – but entirely possible to see how Gerri and Tom could grow weary of her.
Writing about Another Year is as difficult as writing about a finely-written novel, because every statement feels like a broad sweep, missing the subtlety of Mike Leigh’s writing and direction, or the acting of an astonishingly good cast. It felt so ‘real’ – not a euphemism for gritty or unpleasant, as the word ‘real’ is so often used, but naturalistic and vital. The relationships were all believable, sometimes painfully so. Only Mary occasionally went a little too far, a little too ‘drama’ rather than ‘life’, but this was so occasionally that it couldn’t mar a superb performance.
All this makes Another Year sound gloomy – and it is true that the lingering feeling is sadness. But whilst it was showing there were many moments where the cinema rang to the sound of audience laughter – some exceptional observational comedy – and some beautifully warm and touching moments. Like life, I suppose.
Oh, and you know when Judi Dench won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for a few minutes of screentime in Shakespeare in Love? Well, if there is any justice in the world, Imelda Staunton will win one for her part as a depressed insomniac patient of Gerri’s. Sadly, she only appears for a few minutes, in the first handful of scenes – but my friend and I both spent the rest of the film longing for her to reappear. Every tiny movement of her face was transfixing. Any aspiring actor should have to sit and watch her performance – so restrained, but so informative.
All in all, as you can see, I was very impressed! Do go and see it if you have the chance, although it’s probably not on in many places now. If you live near Oxford, you’ll be able to go to the Ultimate Picture Palace – otherwise pre-order the DVD!
Which other Mike Leigh films would you recommend? I’ve gone and ordered All or Nothing and Happy-Go-Lucky, which are now winging their way from Amazon…