Mike Leigh, often a chronicler of hapless middle-class Londoners, went light with his last film, 2008's 'Happy-Go-Lucky,' which focused on a relentlessly chipper Pollyanna type. His new one, 'Another Year,' heads back in the direction of somberness, but it carries a lot of mirth with it. In fact, for most of its running time it feels like a straightforward sophisticated comedy, one that might even have a happy ending...
What we have here is a solar system of messed-up people who orbit an older couple named Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). Tom and Gerri are stable, rock-solid types, with professions to match: he's a geologist, she's a counselor. They've been married for more than 30 years and still adore one another. They are everyone's ideal, all the more lovable for being slightly daft, like a favorite aunt and uncle. It's no wonder they're admired by the people who know them.
These include Mary (Lesley Manville), a secretary at the hospital where Gerri works who's been in one unsuccessful, ill-advised relationship after another. Mary is bubbly and sarcastic, a pleasant chatterbox and an enthusiastic drinker. She's a bit lonely but seems optimistic. Until she drinks too much, that is, whereupon her bipolar pendulum swings the other direction and she becomes hilariously morose.
Tom and Gerri have a 30-year-old bachelor son named Joe (Oliver Maltman). Since they're the perfect parents, they don't nag Joe about settling down and producing grandchildren for them, though they clearly want that. Mary, whose age is somewhere between Joe's and his parents', behaves flirtatiously with him -- maybe like a saucy family friend, maybe like a ravenous cougar. It's hard to tell whether she really wants to date him, or whether she just thinks she does.
Mary is a fascinating woman, exceptionally well played by Mike Leigh veteran Lesley Manville. She wears all her emotions on her sleeve, a whirlwind of energy and neuroses, and an authentic, believable character. Only a scene in which she expresses petty jealousy over Joe's new girlfriend rings false and sitcom-y; everything else Mary does feels pulled from real life.
To further our examination of Mary, Leigh provides a few characters who are slight variations of her. There's Ken (Peter Wight), a big, beery friend of Tom's who is also single and gets emotional when he drinks too much, which is often. You might think the film is contriving to set Ken up with Mary, but no: she is repulsed by him. An older woman named Janet (Imelda Staunton), a patient at the hospital, is married with children, like Mary wants to be, but is deeply and bitterly depressed. Joe's girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez), makes some gestures and remarks that remind you of Mary, except that Katie is well-adjusted and happy. I think the suggestion is that Ken, Janet, and Katie are all visions of what Mary could become, depending on how she deals with her current crises.
Leigh presents all of this in his typical slice-of-life fashion, light on plot but heavy on characterization, full of effortlessly funny dialogue. 'Another Year' comes across like an exceedingly well-acted stage play. Each performance is richly detailed, even when the character appears in only a few scenes. (David Bradley, familiar as Argus Filch in the Harry Potter films, is startlingly memorable as Tom's brother, who doesn't appear until the last quarter of the film.) With all their flaws, these are still perfectly delightful people. It's a pleasure to spend a couple hours with them, even if it's only in fiction.