It is not often that a film offers us a window into the lives of people so ordinary and like ourselves that we feel almost as though we are eavesdropping on a neighbour. In Another Year, Mike Leigh’s talent for allowing his actors to hone individual histories for their characters shines through, and we become intrigued just as much by what we do not know about this group of old friends than what is presented before us.
Another Year takes a look at four seasons in the life of Tom and Gerri and their ramshackle group of friends. Tom and Gerri, played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, have reached their autumn years whilst still enjoying a strong sense of domestic happiness, but their friends, Ken and Mary in particular, are still searching for something to validate the years that seem to have slipped past them. There is almost a sense of cruelty in the juxtaposition of Tom and Gerri’s blissful marriage with Ken and Mary’s struggle to make sense of what has gone wrong. Gerri in particular, perhaps due to her job as counsellor, seems almost pious as she looks down on co-worker Mary’s failings.
The stand out performance here belongs to Lesley Manville who lights up the screen as Mary, providing a form of tragic comedy in her determination to smile in the face of adversity. Her comic relief provides an antidote to some of the darker moments of the film, but it is when she is not speaking that Manville reveals most, allowing us to see beneath the ‘glass half full’ persona that Mary tries to portray, and view the melancholy and disappointment etched in each line of her face. A scene in which Mary, inebriated as usual, attempts to flirt with Gerri and Tom’s son Joe at their family barbecue, intrigues the audience – particularly due to Joe’s apparent encouragement. We later learn a more poignant possibility for Mary’s soft spot for her friend’s son – her candid confession to Tom’s brother that she wished she could have had children of her own.
The bittersweet mood of the film goes hand in hand with the hardened stoicism felt by many of the characters as they ponder over their lot in life. Whilst Leigh’s film provides a fascinating and empathetic insight into the intricacies of human relationships, there is often a sense that Another Year provides more questions than answers.