Whether in tragedy or comedy, there's a constant in Mike Leigh's body of work which rings true every time: this is a director who knows character. It's the purpose of his process – character, not plot – and it's resulted in some of the most memorable British films of the last thirty years. He brought Secrets & Lies to Cannes in 1996 and walked away with the Palme d'Or. Another Year is a wholly different film, but would comfortably have earned the same prize.
Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) - he a geologist, she a medical counselor - are a fortunate couple who've spent many a happy year together. But they must entertain the drunken nonsense of Gerri's work colleague Mary (Lesley Manville), who's slipping past middle age without a man and without a chance. Meanwhile, Tom and Gerri's 30-year-old son, Joe, complains that while he's living a perfectly happy life, his friends are marrying off and he's without a partner.
Through four seasons - spring, summer, autumn and winter - we follow their lives, as birth and death, happiness and sadness, and comfort and despair all rear their heads.
But while the couple is our window into this world, it's really Mary's story we're here to see. Lesley Manville's hilarious and touching performance tugs at the heartstrings as much as it tickles the ribs, and through her character we understand the real triumphs and tragedies of life; small victories and massive defeats. She's ready to make something of herself, she tells her best friend Gerri. Get a car, get a man, and get a life. But her journey is fraught with peril. It's all dodgy motors and disinterested men; a rented flat and no money to buy.
There'll be no surprise to see Manville on BAFTA's Best Actress list this year, for like many of Leigh's leading ladies – recently Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake and Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky – Manville draws her character with such warmth and emotional truth that you're forced to take notice. She begins as comic relief, but the comedy is never fantastical or out of reality. And as her story darkens and winter approaches, she's able to sell the drama without a second thought.
And the seasons represent life cycles too. Apart from the most obvious allusions – a birth in spring and a death in winter – we watch as Mary makes plans to buy a car, gets her hands on one, sees it through engine trouble and finally has to let it go when it gives up the ghost. Joe's is almost an adolescent journey, even though he's 30. At first boisterous and fun, he soon calms down and makes finding a girlfriend his focus, before finally he's in the grips of a first love.
But while this all bubbles under the service, above the waterline it's simply a delightfully comic tale, with quintessentially British characters that still exist in the country's suburbs and small towns. This is Mike Leigh's greatest strength. Even though it must take some effort, he makes the rendering of these characters seem so easy, and that he does it time and time again suggests he's figured out a secret other filmmakers don't have.
Around the Croisette the question being asked prior to the screening of Another Year was, 'Do we need another Mike Leigh character drama?' As long as the auteur is delivering cinema like this, the answer is obviously yes.