Friday, December 31, 2010

Another Year: On How Life Is

We tell stories about all kinds of things. Love. Passion. Murder. Crime. Retribution. Triumph. Smart people doing dumb things. Dumb people doing smart things. There are stories about kings leading armies into battle. There are stories about small romances and great romances, and there are stories about little people that one would never hear of or remember unless they were a personal acquaintance. Every so often, there’s a story told that we call a “slice of life.” Another Year is one of these stories, but it’s more than that. Where other films try to portray the lives of people we think we know, Mike Leigh holds down the corner on the market. This is one of the truest examples of what a slice of life looks like that I’ve seen.

The story’s simple. In 4 acts that mirror the changing seasons, it’s about another year in the lives of two of the nicer people you’re ever bound to meet on a movie screen. The emphasis isn’t on any obvious character arcs, which is in direct opposition to the accepted norms of most standardized screenwriting. Instead, it seems to me that Leigh’s goal is to portray the grace and nurturing power that these two people hold over those they come in contact with.

Tom and Gerri, wonderfully played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, weren’t even on screen for 2 minutes and I found myself thinking, “That is the kind of relationship I want to have when I am older. That is the type of person I would like to be.” I can only hope that, if I am fortunate enough to marry, my partner and I will have the kind of love and deep friendship that they have. There’s not an ounce of fakery in the kindness evident in every frame they share. These two people love each other, and what’s more, there’s not a moment on screen that either of them is shown concealing anything from each other. They’ve moved past pretense and pretending and are content to simply be, and be together.
Another Year is very different from the film I’d been anticipating. Mike Leigh is interested in relating the totality of a person's life experience, not just the fun bits. Near the end of the film, there’s a scene where someone shows up at Tom and Gerri’s house unannounced and has to talk a third person into letting her come inside. In other hands, this sequence would have lasted about 30 seconds. Leigh lets it run its course, and it lasts at least 2-3 minutes, possibly even longer.

You know something? It’s awkward when 2 people don’t know each other and are trying to get something done. You know this. I know this. I think everyone does. The difference here is that Leigh has confidence that his audience will keep a steady eye on things, even when they’re awkward. In the movies, we’ve become very used to only seeing the most exciting parts of someone’s life. There’s a reason that the quiet months that Forrest Gump spends with Jenny in his big ol’ house only last for about 5-10 minutes, now, isn’t there?

Unlikely as it might seem, I don’t think Another Year’s central character is Tom or Gerri. It's Lesley Manville who gives the film's standout performance. I’ve seen her in a couple of Leigh’s other films, but I can’t say I remember her from them. She’s wonderful here. Mary is a co-worker of Gerri’s that, I suspect, has been coming over for dinner/counseling sessions since the day they met. She’s the type of person that I’ve met on many occasions and have been more times than I care to admit. She’s fundamentally unhappy with the way her life’s going and is convinced that the next big thing is what’s going to make her happy.

First, it’s a new car that’s going to be “small and red.” When she gets it, there are all manner of problems. They’re funny as can be, and it’s a warmly affectionate kind of humor. While it’s clear that she’s been pining away for Joe, Tom and Gerri’s son, for years, I don’t think she’d be happy even if she got him to like her. The happiness she seeks can only come from self-actualization and self-acceptance. She already has all of the support she needs to begin the process. Her mistake is to look outward for what can only be found within.
It’s ironic when she finally does find someone that she connects with as an equal. Everyone else in the group is used to her nattering on and on about her life and what she’s going to do. Not this person. He has no frame of reference, and is so quiet that it forces her to slow down and, sometimes, just breathe. Later, she tells him, “it’s really nice to have someone that you can talk to.” This is coming from a woman who’s spent the entire film talking, talking, talking to anyone who will listen to her. She’s only known this man for a matter of hours and has hardly told him anything about her life, but feels that the tiny bit of herself that she’s shared is more genuine than these people she’s known for 20 years. That’s striking.

Mike Leigh doesn’t usually do what I want him to do, and he doesn’t usually do what I think he ought to do. I am beginning to think that this is a good thing. Another Year has a combination of subtlety, honesty, and clarity rarely encountered in contemporary film. It is my continued hope that room be found for the film on the awards circuit, with particular regard to Leigh’s screenplay and Manville’s performance. In a year dominated by high concept stories and "big stars," Another Year and the people in it have a little place in my heart. They can stay as long as they like.

4 stars (out of 5)

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