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Another Year PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Seacroft   
19 12 2010

ImageDirected by Mike Leigh

The idea that this is a feel-good film about a loving middle-aged couple and their amusingly quirky friends, as is to a great extent purveyed by trailer and publicity, is way off the mark. Possibly Mike Leigh's best and bleakest film in years, it avoids, or maybe transcends, his usual overly mannered hyper-reality to produce a portrait of parallel lives of the happy and the unhappy, and the unbridgeable void between.

Tom and Gerri, (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) geologist and therapist, are part of the working class baby boom generation who made good - university (free), travel, good, meaningful, well-paid jobs they enjoy, comfortable nicely furnished home, a loving son, shared interests, and each other, a sound relationship in which they are also each other's best friends. The film is structured around their lives over one year using their work in their beloved allotment to show changing moods and seasons. Around their happy core they attract other, more problematic characters, chiefly Mary (Lesley Manville), a slightly younger secretary from the medical practice where Gerri works, and Ken (Peter Wight), a friend from university days. Both are damaged, unhappy people, she lonely, divorced, disastrously self-deluding, with a drink problem, he with an empty solitary life and a job he hates, unattractive, drinking and eating himself into a early grave. For much of the film these relationships are conveyed and developed in the usual (for me) overwrought Leigh mode, entertaining, sometimes moving, but exaggerated and verging too often on stereotype.

But with the coming of the Winter section something happens. Travelling north to a funeral, back to the dour life of the little working class terraces where Tom's brother Ronnie (David Bradley) still lives, brings a harsh taste of the narrow world they have escaped from, and we seem to move out of typical Leigh territory. In a beige cramped interior full of unyielding surfaces that belongs to a generation without horizons beyond the end of the road, awkward family connections are uncomfortably attempted. The funeral is bitterly downbeat, almost Loachian, and the explosive arrival of their nephew Carl (Martin Savage) on the scene is straight out of Shane Meadows. From now on their happy life is, for the audience, always tinged with the surrounding bleakness of the lives around them. David Bradley is utterly superb as the almost mute, blankly depressed brother who didn't get away as his younger brother did. As ever with Leigh, it's the little details which are telling, and nothing conveys the gulf between the two brothers so well as the scene in the old fashioned bedroom where Tom packs shirts for him, folding them swiftly and expertly in frequent traveller fashion, while Ronnie looks on bemusedly. Gerri' s chirpy  'sit yourself down' and ‘lovely... ' trade marks begin to ring hollow, and later back at their home we see that their warmth has its limits, and serves in the end only to underline the coldness of the lives around them.

As they embark on another round of life as time for Spring approaches, this time with suitable potential daughter in law joining them in the charmed circle, (though one who may well prove to be the daughter in law from hell, if you ask me, with her squirmy giggles and over-willingness to please), planning their worthy Guardian reader-type holidays and eating good home grown food, you wonder, particularly, about Gerri. Her easygoing content reveals something unpleasantly steely and maybe even dislikeable about her. Does she really care about people outside her immediate family, or has it just become a professional mode she slips into? Is this what belonging to a 'caring profession' does to you?

Leaving the cinema I caught a lady of a certain age behind me saying - but what happened to Imelda Staunton? At first I thought it showed a failure to grasp the role of the character, a depressed client of Gerri's who appears in the short cameo at the beginning of the film to introduce both the character of Gerri and the idea of what individual happiness might be. But then, maybe it's a very good question. I think we know what happened to her - nothing. Gerri's pat, professional questions - what change would make your life better? - Name a time when you were happy... are meaningless to her because she lives in a different world, across the unbridgeable gap between the happy and the unhappy. And nothing we see in the rest of the film, for all the cheerful couple's attempts, can alter this dichotomy. People are trapped in their own misery, and happiness doesn't ‘rub off', it just underlines and maybe makes worse the inadequacy of others' lives.

Seen at Cineworld, Haymarket, London, 27 November 2010

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