Having lost out on the Palm D’Or at Cannes earlier this year, Mike Leigh’s latest bittersweet offering is finally released in its country of origin. And what a treat it is. It’s been over two years since a Leigh-directed feature hit UK cinemas, the last one being 2008’s delightful dramedy Happy-Go-Lucky, and this time he’s been back to his old melancholy toolbox and had a rummage around in its drawers of heartache, loss and woe. But there is a lot of fun to be had here too, most of it coming from the impeccable performances from some of Britain’s finest character actors.
Charting a year in the life of middle-aged London-based couple Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, respectively), the film plays out in a mild-mannered but surprisingly bewitching way as we are slowly pulled into their lifestyle, family and friends. They have a 30-year old son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), whom they adore. But they quietly worry about his love life, or lack of it. He becomes very distant when they bring it up, and seems unwilling to talk about the possibility of supplying them with grandchildren.
One of Tom and Gerri’s most interesting friends is Mary (Lesley Manville); a colleague of Gerri. She’s fun, cheery and rather loud, but a bit too merry for it all to be natural. As the film progresses, we learn that her jolly persona is a veil to hide her interior loneliness. Although a similar age to Gerri, she has her eyes on Joe, though the young man doesn’t reciprocate her feelings. Mary also has a drink problem that is becoming a cause for concern.
Mike Leigh has been criticised in the past for producing grumpy kitchen-sink cinema, but this is a colourful celebration of life, love and friendship. It doesn’t patronise the viewer by telling them it’s all going to be all right. Realism is key here, as you will know if you’ve seen Leigh’s other work, and although the film offers a note of optimism at the end, there are no easy answers given to some of life’s hardest questions.
Although Broadbent and Sheen are exceptional, it is Manville who steals the show as Mary. Loveable, embarrassing, scatty and heartbreaking, it is a magnificent performance of a character that will seem frighteningly close to people many of us will encounter sometime in our lives. With Oscar-buzz already surrounding her name, Lesley Manville will hopefully be in store for a winter full of awards nominations.
Another Year is an utterly beautiful work of art. It makes us look at ourselves, the people around us and, most importantly, the way each passing year affects our relationships with those we love and cherish. In a perfect world this would win the Oscar for Best Picture, but I fear that will go to more commercial fare. Oh well. Here’s to another year.
Good: A quiet masterpiece. Wonderful acting with soul-searching drama.
Bad: Some may find the leisurely pace a little too indulgent.