LITTLE ROCK Tolstoy told us that happy families are all alike, and while that is not quite right (I prefer Kevin Brockmeier’s theory that there are “varieties of heaven”), it is fair to say that it is easier to find drama in dysfunction than in harmony. Happiness may not ruin artists, but it is easier to write a sad song than an encomium to one’s faithful beloved.
And so it is difficult to boil MikeLeigh’s latest observation, Another Year, down to a compelling story pitch. It’s an intimate ensemble drama about a year in the life of a slightly daft yet remarkably centered London couple in the throes of late middle age. They are comfortably well off, reliably liberal in their attitudes and finally and deeply in love with each other. They are resigned to their happiness, confirmed in their serenity. Whowould want to watch that movie?
But they have pricklier friends and relations who have trouble negotiating life, who have regrets and grievances and skewed ideas about how they might fit in the world. They gravitate to the couple’s home - for dinner, to parties - and they talk about themselves and their missed opportunities, revealing their vanities, self-regard and self-inflicted misery. They are rueful creatures, but our couple - Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) - seem to love them enough to suffer their backhanded compliments and passive-aggressive digs.
But Tom and Gerri aren’t simple; he is a geologist, an appropriate profession for one so down to earth, while she’s a psychologist for the National Health Service and attends to the night terrors and psychic wounds of ordinary folks. Neither is naive, and like a lot of long-tenured couples they are able to communicate in a private language of glance and gesture. They comment, not unkindly, on the trials of their friends; they do what they can to help.
Mary (Lesley Manville), a neurotic secretary who works in Gerri’s office, is a shrill, vain creature closing in on 50 who curates a vision of herself as someone young and glamorous - a kicky bird - and uses white wine as an excuse to wallow in her disappointments. Divorced, with unrealistic expectations, she flirts with Tom and Gerri’s 30-ish son Joe (Oliver Maltman). An easygoing lawyer who seems to have inheritedhis father’s equilibrium, Joe deflects her overtures with kindness.
No less troubled is Tom’s childhood friend Ken (Peter Wight), an obese binger whose loneliness is palpable. He is cruelly rebuked when he makes a desperate play for Mary. And then there’s Tom’s emotionally stunted older brother Ronnie (David Bradley), freshly widowed and bitterly despised by his angry, leather-clad biker son Carl (Martin Savage, flashingphosphorus across the screen like a tracer round). All these stymied people, where do they all come from?
Leigh’s usual technique, which involves nothing so formal as a script, allows for the actors to parry and play and explore pockets of emotional opportunity. And with a repertory as fine as this, it’s a highly rewarding way to work - there’s hardly a false note sounded.
Manville seems to have garnered the bulk of the accolades. There was, in the weeks before the nominations were announced, much talk of a possible Best Actress nod although her role was clearly smaller than Sheen’s. In the end she didn’t get one, but it’s the type of acting that often does - she’s authentically irritating, a vile and pathetic presence who will likely remind you of someone you strive to avoid at parties.
Broadbent and Sheen are particularly fine as the anchoring poles. Tom and Gerri’s happiness is genuine but perhaps not entirely honorable; it is possible that they are enjoying the travails of their friends a little too much, that they are privately amused by the petty dramas that swirl about them. They seem supportive and life-affirming, they seem to want things to work out for their friends, but do we detect just a touch of smugness in their tight smiles?
Leigh is one of the world’s great filmmakers, and Another Year is one of his most affecting and haunting films. It is a bittersweet study of a happy family, its discontented satellites and the ways we sabotage ourselves.
MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 02/04/2011
Print Headline: Bittersweet