Monday 18 October 2010

At the LFF: "Another Year"

There had been idle speculation, at various points in the recent past, that all was not well aboard the good ship Mike Leigh, particularly with the death of Simon Channing-Williams, the director's long-time producer and keenest sponsor. Yet if there's one recurring theme in the Leigh filmography - upon which he continues to play subtle, skilful variations - it's how we come to deal with the vicissitudes of existence. Think of David Thewlis's Johnny in Naked, ferociously raging against the dying of the light; or Sally Hawkins' Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, a fervent collector of silver linings. Those Marmite-movies mark the twin extremes of the director's work, of course: as many came to love them as found they couldn't bear to watch. The characters in Leigh's latest, Another Year, cleave steadfastly to the middle ground: they're muddling through as best they can.

These are 12 months in the lives of geological engineer Tom (Jim Broadbent), his counsellor wife Gerri (Ruth Sheen), and their various passing friends, most of which are introduced bounding up the stairs in the couple's comfortably appointed semi to take a pee and a place in the spare bedroom. Foremost amongst these houseguests is Gerri's scatty, unmarried colleague Mary (Lesley Manville). Mary likes Gerri and Tom, but their every shared look and laugh - their every loving reunion with grown son Joe (Oliver Maltman) - is a painful reminder of what she herself lacks: it's the reason she drinks ("I'm a glass half-full kind of gal," she joshes, only half-correct), and when she drinks, she gets troublesome. Other visitors prove even more tragic: take Ken (Peter Wight), a bluff, burly sort in a "Less Thinking, More Drinking" T-shirt, who himself is apt to overdoing the red wine and tears before bedtime. In a world where nobody appears happy, Leigh reasons, perhaps getting by like Gerri and Tom is all we can hope to achieve.

In everything from its cast to its look to Gary Yershon's simple, plaintive score, Another Year is very clearly a return to Leigh's Film on Four days, observing the tensions that arise quietly in kitchens and living rooms - this time, thankfully, without the knock-down, drag-out melodramatics of a Secrets & Lies. (There's no Blethyn, for a start.) Revisiting these homes, themes and characters allows Leigh to invest already strong, thought-through material with a further two decades' life experience - and his actors to reach another level entirely, building on what's gone before. Manville, for starters, is both exquisitely and excruciatingly good - the logical successor to Poppy as a character you can't watch without having your hands ready to cover your eyes, a whirlwind of gauche flirting, conversational hairpin turns and pitiful self-recrimination.

The two hours contain some of Leigh's best work with even walk-on members of his ensemble, from a scarily despondent Imelda Staunton (as one of Gerri's patients, setting the low bar for the other character's troubles) to a brisk Phil Davis (showing up for a round of golf and a barbeque, fretting about the wife) and the typically terse David Bradley (as eloquent sipping from a mug of tea as certain Hawks heroes were lighting cigarettes). Maltman, previously known for wacky small-screen comedy (Star Stories) is a subtle revelation as a character who comes to seem less of a prat the more one finds out about him, and I was reassured to see Mary Jo Randle - a mainstay of early 90s kitchen-sink dramas - back in a small role as a mourner.

As for Broadbent and Sheen, both restating their bids for national-treasure status: well, Tom and Gerri could have been no more than a bewoollened sounding board signifying aspirational ordinariness, a two-person expression of constancy in an unsettled, at worst indifferent universe. ("Bread and cheese," the two chirp in unison, when asked what it is they have for lunch.) Yet there's real depth and subtlety here: see Broadbent's remarkably expressive double-act with a cafetiere, or Sheen's guarded seething after Mary has taken exception to the new girlfriend Tom has brought home.

The couple's homestead, a repository of simple pleasures (with an allotment out the back, where the pair tend the soil and feel the sun on their faces), is where Leigh demonstrates the utmost sincerity: "Life's not always kind," Gerri suggests to Mary during a garden party, and the ruefulness the camera catches in Sheen's eyes is in itself enough to stave off the now-expected accusations this director is dealing in little more than petit-bourgeois caricature. It's typical of how an extraordinarily truthful film transcends what first appear narrow and cosy confines to range far and wide, engaging with, among other matters, the comforts and consolations of marriage, the human need to find somebody to settle down with, and the way we come with time and the passing of the seasons to accumulate people and regrets alike.

The improv looseness associated with this director is still evident - we draw towards a conclusion with a heart-to-heart between two characters who've never previously met - but Another Year displays a keener interest in structure than Leigh ever has: not just in the seasonal chaptering, but in the way dialogue and plot developments come to echo one another. (An entire subplot is devoted to Mary's ill-fated car.) We end with the characters mired in winter, with the pronounced chill of mortality in the air: the closing shot, in a film of masterly camera and editing decisions, aligns youthful optimism (and the promise of fresh starts to come) with its mirror image, embittered, hard-gained experience, over the kitchen table. All are welcome at Tom and Gerri's, but both the film and its director know at least a couple of them - and more than a few of us, in fact - will be going home alone.

Another Year screens as the Centrepiece Gala tonight (7pm, Odeon Leicester Square), and at the Vue West End on Wed 20 and Thu 21, before opening nationwide on November 5.

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