Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mike Leigh on the curse of loneliness

Brilliantly acted and unafraid of pain, Mike Leigh's Another Year takes us to uncomfortable places.
Tom and Gerri are two halves of a London couple ensconced in an idyllic marriage. They seem to enjoy each other's company. They both work at productive jobs. He's a geological engineer. She's a psychological counselor. Their home exudes lived-in comfort, and, in their spare time, Tom and Gerri toddle off to their garden plot to grow vegetables. Did I mention, he cooks, and they never seem at a loss for a decent bottle of wine to enhance even the most rudimentary of meals?

Tom and Gerri occupy the center of Mike Leigh's quietly moving Another Year, a movie that takes us through four seasons in the lives of Tom, Gerri and the people who assemble around them. For all their contentment, Tom and Gerri are like a ship gathering barnacles of despair -- in the form of friends and relatives.

I've observed this phenomenon at close hand: One couple becomes a centerpiece in the lives of a variety of people. Many of these "satellite" folks measure their lives against the happy couple's apparent successes. Unlike recent American movies about couples -- Rabbit Hole and Blue Valentine, for example -- Another Year doesn't deal with crisis situations. The despair in Another Year is life-sized and cumulative, and seems to have grown in the well-watered soil of loneliness and desperation.

Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen play Tom and Gerri, two well-adjusted adults who treat their friends with acceptance, as well as with a bit of condescension. Their door seems always to be open, but Tom and Gerri also understand the inadequacies of some of their friends, showing slight traces of the superiority the self-possessed sometimes feel toward the maladjusted.

Early on, Leigh makes it clear that he's intent on assaying a particular kind of despair, the kind that closes in when people reach the brink of what has become known as "young" old age, the late 50s, say. To make the point, Leigh begins the movie with one of Gerri's co-workers talking to a woman (Imelda Staunton) who's suffering from terrible insomnia.

Staunton's Janet is advised to seek counseling, but you can tell from Staunton's grim expression that this woman doesn't want to talk and probe; she wants the blessed relief of unconsciousness. Staunton's character vanishes after that first scene, but she sets a powerful tone for what follows.

I don't mean to make Another Year sound like an ordeal; it isn't. A splendid ensemble cast creates characters that are recognizable and real. We could know these people. Maybe, in some way, we do. There's real pleasure in that.

Two of Tom and Gerri's friends stand apart from the rest.

First, Mary (Lesley Manville), a secretary who works at the same facility as Gerri. An annoyingly giddy manner masks Mary's depression. She's one of those women who never had much going for her, but was reasonably attractive. Now that her looks are beginning to fade, Mary faces the prospect of ... well ... no prospects. Mary doesn't talk; she prattles, and when she drinks too much wine -- which is whenever she drinks -- she inevitably embarrasses herself.

Stick with Manville. I believe that before the movie's done, she topples the walls of caricature and gets to something painfully real.

Then there's Tom's old buddy, Ken (Peter Wight). Ken shows up for a visit, looking like a walking prelude to a coronary. He smokes. He's almost always got a beer can in hand. Overweight and disheveled, he seems to be gasping for breath even when he's standing still. He's a wreck, and he makes an awkward play to connect with Mary, another wreck. She's too vain to admit that Ken might be the best that she can do.

Somehow, Mary has made Tom and Gerri's son Joe (Oliver Maltman) the target of a misguided flirtation. He's a lawyer, and he seems to have the same generally cheerful disposition with which his father and mother are blessed. He humors Mary. When Joe brings home a girlfriend (Karina Fernandez) to meet his parents, Mary's thrown into a tailspin. She's being ridiculous, of course, but for Mary, Joe probably represents a way into the happily-ever-after existence that Tom and Gerri seem to have found. When that door slams shut, she's sad and rueful.

As with all Leigh movies, plot seldom stands in the way of characterization and drama filters through the incessant drip of ordinary life, a backyard barbecue, an unannounced visit or an afternoon tea.

In the movie's final segment the tone shifts a bit: We meet Tom's brother Ronnie (David Bradley). Ronnie's wife has just passed away. His affliction is twofold: He's stricken with grief and unable to express it. It's difficult to believe that Tom and Ronnie derive from the same gene pool, but Leigh insists on bringing Ronnie -- a veritable mountain of gloom -- into the movie's home stretch.

Not everything in Another Year is fully realized. But the performances are outstanding, and Leigh dares to show us what happens to those unfortunate folks who realize that they've arrived at a moment in which life is as good as it's ever going to get -- and, sadly, it's not good enough.

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