Nothing happens in Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” – and everything happens.
A miracle of virtuoso acting and understated filmmaking, Leigh’s film is a year-in-the-life exploration of a group of friends, in which Leigh tackles all of the big issues: life, death, love, marriage, unhappiness, purpose. Yet he does it without anyone giving a speech, without anyone even truly addressing the subjects at hand.
Rather, it’s all in their behavior and interaction, the way they get on with their lives – or don’t. His actors find the underlying psychology of the characters, even as they enact the mundane moments of their daily lives.
The film starts with a close-up on an exceptionally unhappy face: an older woman named Janet, played by Imelda Staunton in a classic bit of throwaway. She’s talking to an unseen doctor about her inability to sleep, though talking is probably a misnomer. Rather, the doctor asks her questions and she provides grudging answers. She can’t sleep; she wants sleeping pills. And she has no interest in discussing what it is in her life that might be at the root of the sleeplessness.
In fact, Janet only appears once more in the film, but her closed-off mask of distinct distemper is like a template for most of the characters in the film. We meet several who are obviously miserable but, being British, wouldn’t say anything about it if it killed them.
The film shifts to an geologist named Tom (Jim Broadbent), then to a psychotherapist named Gerri (Ruth Sheen), who is also trying to draw some self-revelation out of the obdurate Janet. Gerri then makes a date to have a drink with an officemate named Mary (Lesley Manville), eventually inviting her to dinner.
Gerri and Tom are a long-time married couple, with a grown son named Joe (Oliver Maltman). Mary shows up for the dinner, bearing a bottle of wine, affecting good cheer. But even as she drinks most of the wine herself, she begins to reveal her essential unhappiness: that she has not married, has no children, has no prospects. Eventually, she gets so drunk that Tom and Gerri invite her to spend the night.
The section is dubbed spring and also features Tom and Gerri working their “allotment,” a community garden plot where they raise their own vegetables. (The allotment, in fact, is a consistent feature of each section of the film.) They also have a visit from their unmarried son Joe, who seems a good sort, a bit tired of his parents worrying about the fact that he’s still single and his friends are all getting married.
The summer section brings another unhappy friend calling: Ken (Peter Wight), a hard-drinking divorced school chum of Tom’s, who comes for a weekend of barbecues, golf and, well, his own misery. The barbecue brings him together with Mary, who instantly senses a kindred soul – and is just as instantly repelled by him. She’s rejecting him before he has a chance to say more than a couple of words.
Instead, she’s got her sights set on Gerri’s son, Joe, despite the fact that he’s a generation younger than she is. She flirts with him, talks about getting together for a drink when they’re back in the city – all while he looks at her with pitying amusement.
And so on: In the fall, Mary comes for dinner and is horrified to discover that Joe now has a serious girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez). In winter, Tom has to help his remote older brother Ronnie (David Bradley) through the funeral of Ronnie’s wife – and a visit from Ronnie’s surly estranged son.
Leigh’s ability to create real situations – with actors who are so immersed in the characters that we’re observing behavior, rather than acting – is the true marvel here. This is slice-of-life drama that is cosmic in its microcosmic depth. The whole world exists in these scenes, even as they play out with a minimum of actual events. Rather, they explore the feelings that we all have, but cannot speak of in the moment.
The most amazing performance belongs to Lesley Manville as the unhappy Mary. She longs for someone to say, “What’s wrong, Mary?” so she can unload on them about the misery that is her life. But her friends have learned that lesson – or learn it soon enough – and so Mary becomes this brittle, false-faced friend who wants to be the center of someone’s – anyone’s – attention but rarely has the chance.
Broadbent and Sheen define the term “long-suffering” as the one happy couple, the magnets who attract this raft of unhappy friends, who look to them for guidance and sympathy. Even they have their limit; Tom’s has to do with his nephew, who turns up late for his mother’s funeral, then acts nasty to the rest of the family – until Tom tells him off.
“Another Year” is a movie that shows rather than tells, observes rather than manipulates. But the feelings it elicits in the viewer accrue and grow as the film goes on; by the time it’s over, you are reluctant to leave these people on whose lives you’ve dropped in and wish you could spend more time with them (or some of them).