By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist October 21, 2010 at 5:13AM
After a relatively low key start, the London Film Festival swung into action in a big way over the weekend with the UK premiere of a critical favorite from this year's Cannes Film Festival; the latest film from British national treasure Mike Leigh, "Another Year." Fortunately, after a slightly uneven start to the festival, it's likely to rank among the finest films of the year.
Leigh's last film was the comedy-drama "Happy-Go-Lucky" which, despite a universally acclaimed pair of central performances from Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan, proved somewhat divisive -- some finding it delightful, others irritating, while this writer believes it to be charming, but one of the slighter efforts of Leigh's career. In many ways, "Another Year" is riffing on similar themes -- how people who are intrinsically good and happy cope with a world and people around them that, well, aren't particularly happy or good -- but it feels far more fully realized, and generally successful.
Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, the latter particularly excellent), a geological engineer and a therapist, have been married for over 40 years and have a grown-up son, Joe (Oliver Maltman). Over four acts, set over the titular 12 months and divided into seasons, we follow the family and their assorted friends: Gerri's aging, borderline alcoholic and desperately lonely colleague Mary (Lesley Manville); Tom's childhood pal, the equally beer-driven, overweight Ken (Peter Wight); his brother, the near-catatonic Ronnie (David Bradley); and Joe's new girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez), at dinner parties, barbecues and funerals.
The humor's as gentle and well-observed as you'd expect from Leigh, but the film may be a little loose and episodic for some: without the relative high concept of something like "Vera Drake" or "Secrets & Lies," some might find it a little too free-form. But we don't go to Leigh's films for the tight plotting, we go for the breadth of human experience that they demonstrate, and in this respect, the film's arguably one of Leigh's best. Virtually everyone in the cast has made at least one film with Leigh (10 of the principle cast, to be exact), and they make the work look effortless. Everyone's excellent, particularly Manville -- we're not exactly the first to pick her out for potential awards attention, but she really is outstanding, just keeping Mary this side of caricature and empathetic even when she's at her monstrous. With any justice, she'll be sitting in the Kodak come next February.
In many ways, the film played to us as a kind of companion piece to "Happy-Go-Lucky;" Tom and Gerri, like Poppy in that film, are people who've won at life -- they can enjoy the simple things, they're happy with their lot, and are essentially happy. But they're surrounded by happiness, and the film's opening scene in which Gerri talks to a sour patient (Imelda Staunton) who's clearly clinically depressed, makes it clear that the film is something of a study in unhappiness, as seen refracted through the views of those who are more fortunate. Both Mary and Ken are lonely too late in life and not dealing with it well, while Ronnie has to face a life on his own with his wife dead and his son estranged. With a slightly broader canvas than in "Happy-Go-Lucky," and without it being taken to such extremes (at some points, that film felt like "Happiest Girl Vs. Angriest Man"), the dichotomy works better.
Technically, as usual, the film is fairly impeccable with Leigh veteran Dick Pope doing strong work as ever behind the camera. It has to be said that we're not a fan of Gary Yershon's scores, either here or in "Happy-Go-Lucky" -- they seem a little too TV sitcom for our tastes. The film's also prevented from being very top-tier Leigh by a faint unevenness, which we imagine is borne of the director's working techniques.
The film develops from a lengthy rehearsal process with the actors, with co-stars often unaware of major elements of the film -- those playing the family of the title character in "Vera Drake," for instance, were unaware that the film was about illegal abortion until it became time to film the pivotal scene. While this technique is, for the most part, enormously effective, here, it feels like the film was meant to be more even-handed and that, whether in the rehearsal process or the editing room, Manville's character was moved to the forefront. As she's the best thing in it, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but when she goes absent for large portions of the film, including much of the last 30 minutes, the film suffers from it -- imagine if David Thewlis' Johnny disappeared for huge chunks of "Naked."
Having said all that, and considering it's a film that deals with huge issues, it's an enormously pleasurable experience and pretty much a must-see when it hits UK theaters next month, and the U.S. in December. And again, read our alternate take from Toronto earlier in the year, which we endorse wholeheartedly. [A-]