Where Mike Leigh’s previous film Happy-Go-Lucky was seen as a change of direction for the celebrated British director, edging away from the grim kitchen sink social dramas that have been his stock in trade since his break-out TV movie Abigail’s Party, Another Year moves him squarely back into familiar territory. The film follows a year in the life of a contented married couple as their peaceful existence intersects with their considerably less stable friends, notably receptionist Mary, a fifty-something divorcee who lives in a perpetual state of crisis.
Despite being divided into four seasonal chapters, this is one of those ‘nothing happens’ films that places theme ahead of narrative drama. The story unfolds almost entirely through conversation over a series of dinner scenes, cups of tea and picnics, interrupted only by establishing shots of the couple’s allotment to serve as a symbol of passing time. It’s technically superb: having made a career out of these kinds of films, Leigh knows how to subtly evoke mood and changing circumstances through gentle shifts in colour and framing, even when using the same locations. The kitchen in which much of the drama takes place looks a welcoming safe haven in summer, yet as friendships become increasingly fractured, the winter brings with it an unforgiving frosty pallor. Leigh’s shot framing deserves no less acclaim, especially in holding back the close-ups for devastating effect in the moments where the characters feel the pressures of life closing in.
Yet here’s the rub: the bleaker these kinds of dramas get, the more important it is to be able to detect even the tiniest measure of empathy to avoid slipping into fetishisation of the characters’ plight. Leigh gives us no such measure here and as powerfully as his camera captures his cast’s faces being contorted over time by life’s perpetual knocks, by the end it feels as though he’s almost enjoying watching each new bout of suffering take its toll. Some severe flaws in characterisation don’t help: Mary is the script’s favourite punching bag, evidently supposed to be a tragic figure in the Blanche Dubois mould but exaggerated into twitching caricature. Lesley Manville’s performance, much acclaimed by critics and tipped for awards recognition, is inconsistent in the extreme and moves from quietly heartbroken to farcically quivering wreck, barely able to finish a sentence without peppering each syllable with nervous inflection. Leigh no doubt meant for her to be difficult to watch, but was probably hoping to achieve it through audience sympathy rather than the character just being so damned annoying.
The main couple, played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, should provide the story’s human heart – their names, Tom and Gerri, must be an ironic joke at how completely peaceful their marriage seems to be – yet their motives are smug at best and deeply suspect at worst. Leigh has on occasion been criticised for taking a condescending view of his characters and these two seem to operate as the director’s analogues in that capacity (with Gary Yershon’s ersatz-meaningful score backing them up). The themes the script would apparently like to present society’s abandonment of the elderly and the limits of sympathy when misery is attracted to happiness in order to leech off it until it is completely drained. Yet far from appearing to be suffering from the effects of allowing a procession of sad-sacks into their home, Gerri and Tom seem to actively welcome and indulge it, wallowing in the satisfaction of seeing others deteriorate as their marriage goes from strength to strength. There’s no sign of any willingness to help these people they call friends overcome their troubles, preferring to sit back and prod at the opening wounds to see what fresh vein they can tap. At the first sign of those troubles intruding on their own lives, the friend is mercilessly cut off. The only reason we have to like this couple is because the excellent Broadbent and Sheen share an easy, natural affection which almost compensates for their characters’ questionable ethics. Even their best efforts can’t make any better the dialogue though, which aims for naturalism and rings excruciatingly false – a dinner scene where Tom, Gerri and their son and girlfriend (whose insufferable quirkiness rivals Mary in the female caricature stakes) are supposed to be casually getting to know each other sounds so achingly contrived you’ll be thankful to escape without your ears bleeding.
That a director of Mike Leigh’s experience with kitchen sink dramas should produce a film as insincere and supercilious as Another Year beggars belief, forgetting all trace of empathy and taking an unsettlingly indulgent approach to his characters’ suffering. The potentially interesting themes are wasted by misjudged characterisation and arch dialogue only partially salvaged by technical excellence in shot composition and the performances of Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen in the central roles. Character pieces can get away with a certain degree of narrative aimlessness, reflecting the absence of structure in real life unfolding, but when the characters in question are so poorly conceived, the tempered pace and floaty storytelling only compile the frustrations. For a story about people and their relationships, Another Year suffers from a debilitating deficit of humanity.
Overall Score: 4.25 – Terrible (4s are terrible in many ways. They’re bad enough that even diehard fans of its genre, director, or cast still probably won’t enjoy it at all, and everyone else will leave the theatre incredibly angry. Not only are these not worth renting, you should even change the TV channel on them in the future.)