This review originally ran during the 2010 Toronto Film Festival.
Marked by complex, sometimes contradictory emotional textures, bolstered by wonderfully contoured, masterclass performances, and a thoughtful, yet understated camera, Mike Leigh's latest effort, the appropriately titled, "Another Year," is a somber (but not bleak), matter-of-fact character study on the condition of human happiness or lack thereof.
In the film's opening prologue, Imelda Staunton's character (only a small cameo in the picture — she doesn't really return) is asked, "on as scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you?" This question sets the mood and tone for a picture that is often tinged with melancholy, despair and loneliness, while peppered with soulful, humanist notes of infectious joy, resonating humor and warmth.
While essentially about life, particularly facets like inevitable change and facing death in old age, the picture doesn't remotely display anything as clichéd as that might sound — even if it is sectioned into four parts representing spring, summer, fall and winter. And at times, "Another Year" can be difficult to watch, as stunted-growth characters embarrassingly stumble through terrible decisions in their middle-aged lives. "Life isn't always kind to everyone," the wonderfully empathic therapist Gerri (Ruth Sheen) says at one point, and given the evidence we're presented with, she's absolutely right. Some people are lucky enough to live relatively happily, while others seem predisposed to suffer, get stuck in their ruts and never change their stations in life.
But if there's a dealbreaker here for audiences (or critics) who might not take to 'Year''s charms and moods (you'll either go with it or you won't), it's the wandering narrative. Leigh's picture bucks the three-act structure more than any of his recent films and the low-stakes drama has few dramatic arcs or forward-moving plot points. Characters don't overcome insurmountable obstacles, fulfill lifelong dreams or realize any major epiphanies. Instead, "Another Year," works almost the same way as its characters in the four vignettes: the dynamic structure evolves slowly, like the friendships and connections between the various personalities. New characters appear whenever the seasons dictate, but their introductions (and then quick disappearances) can seem unorthodox to say the least. Truthfully, a three-act structure is (mostly) there, it's just an especially faint one, that average plebs accustomed to more familiar film grammar may find a little meandering. Yet it's a testament to Leigh's characters and his wonderful actors that "Another Year" remains mostly engrossing throughout, despite its roundabout structure.
The picture satellites around a London-based family nucleus, headed up by Tom (a tremendous Jim Broadbent), Gerri (Sheen), their son Joe (Oliver Maltman) and their friends, yet gradually reveals itself to be more about Gerri's co-worker and friend of 20 years Mary (Lesley Manville) and her various problems; pathological loneliness and no strong sense of direction being her chief issues. The un-self-aware Mary makes the long trek from her London suburb each week to see her friends, but eventually begins to wear out her welcome. Lonely, alcoholic, sad and clueless about her appeal to men (she's not unattractive at all, but she's clearly not come to terms with the fact she's hit her 50s), Mary invades the family's life each week, getting too drunk to go home, amusing them with her self-centeredness and occasionally vexing them with her thoughtlessness. Mary is one of those friends who's a lovable "handful," but is always in a state of crisis that seems to exponentially grow and grow, and eventually starts to grate. She's emotional quicksand and Manville does a masterful job of conveying the character's charm, along with her obvious, painful-to-watch desperation. (If there's justice in this world, there's an Oscar nomination with her name on it, and buzz surrounding her performance been building since Cannes. We hope that momentum continues into the fall.)
Worse, the perennially flirtatious Mary seems to have an unhealthy relationship with their son Joe, lurking around him as if she sees him as a potential romantic prospect. Meanwhile, Tom's drunken, slovenly and pitiful friend Ken (recognizable seasoned English character actor Peter Wight) isn't much better off. Single and always intoxicated, the character is equally pathetic in his own way, fumbling around and uncomfortably hitting on Mary to zero avail. Watching these two characters struggle uphill is depressing, but perhaps the nature of the beast. Not everyone has it together and not everyone will one day figure it out.
If one were to examine Leigh's film closely, one could be forgiven for thinking the filmmaker was trying to say that life without family (or perhaps just love) is a wretched one, but it does seem to be a theme throughout the picture, that every single character is desperate and saddled with major hardships. Their son Joe seems -- not unhappy per se -- but unmoored until he meets his chipper girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez) and then his life and their relationship seems to blossom much to the elation of his parents.
Meanwhile, the naive and childlike Mary -- who's living her own version of 50-year-old arrested development -- is shocked and upset at the arrival of Katie, still jealously clinging to the sad and absurd notion that her and Joe could one day connect. She is visibly crushed when she is called, "Auntie Mary" by the family even though she's twenty years older than the 30-year-old man. It's instances like this that pull no emotional punches and are agonizing to watch.
Leigh's drama gets tougher in its last winter act, with little feel-good reprieve to sugarcoat any of the human suffering (which is beautifully underscored by composer Gary Yershon's score; just a few notes from it and you'll get all weepy-eyed). Tom's older brother (David Bradley's) wife dies and his family has to rally around the stunned and wounded mam. Adding to the distress is his estranged son (Martin Savage), an angry piece of work who makes the funeral extra grim for everyone involved. There's also a challenging, near-bleak ending that clearly didn't appease some Toronto festivalgoers expecting something more uplifting, but is fitting with Leigh's clearly bittersweet, yet never sentimental outlook on life.
"Another Year," features the changing of seasons, births, deaths, yet no hackneyed chestnuts about life that will leave you feeling comforted or warm and fuzzy inside. There's no easy answers and some audiences may find its conclusion unsatisfying or a bitter pill to swallow, but the picture ends where it does only so you can decide what to make of all its involved emotional layers and textures. Still, as dark, awkward and sad as "Another Year" can be in spots, ultimately, it's a tremendously lovely picture about friendship, love, life and all the dirty uncomfortable moments in between. And hopefully it's embraced for everything it has to offer, life-unaffirming or otherwise. [B+]