Monday, 10 February 2014

Another Year (2010)

Ah, what a wise, warm and understanding film we have here! Mike Leigh, with his team of committed actors, has created a masterpiece. Films like this are the kinds of films that make me thankful for film existing at all. It's an enriching experience. It is a film that mines deep, deep truths and plumbs the depths of human existence from an action as benign as commonplace as offering a cup of tea to someone. As a harmony, of actors, writing and film-making, there exists few achievements like it. It is, simply, a magical film and one that filled me with sadness, happiness, hope, joy and despair, often in the space of one scene. It’s miraculous.

It eschews a tradition plot; indeed, the title acts as a synopsis. We follow the lives of an elderly, refined couple Tom and Gerri (yes, they know) over four chapters set over the course of one year. There is a birth, a death, lots of meals, multiple glasses of wine, and numerous cups of tea. Tom, played by Jim Broadbent, is a calm, quiet and stoical man with a palpable love for his hard-earned comfortable life, his career in geology, and most importantly his wife Gerri. Played by Ruth Sheen, she is a similarly caring person, who manages to project an image of perfect understanding without ever saying as much. They are not so much movie characters as living breathing people, and they are the centre of this film, although arguably not the subject.

There are plenty of hangers on, family, friends and others in the lives of Tom and Gerri. There’s the overweight, deeply lonely Ken (Peter Wight), who is eating and drinking his way to a heart attack while Tom and Gerri silently watch. There’s Tom and Gerri’s son Joe (Oliver Maltman), a flawed but decent bloke who loves his parents dearly and enjoys the time he spends with them. There’s his girlfriend Katie, (Karina Fernandez), who is sweet, chirpy, and eager to please to a fault. And then, in every passage, there is Mary (Lesley Manville), an alcoholic loner who clings onto Tom and Gerri for dear life. I am reluctant to say that this film is about anything, aside from the gentle passing of time with its inevitable ups and downs, but if I had to pick anything, then it would be her. Her performance is whole, and at times stunning to behold. Look at the picture of sadness her face becomes when she realises that Joe has a girlfriend, for example. Acting like that is hard to find indeed. 

What makes this film so good is how quietly observational it is. It does not judge, and nor, I think, is it asking you to judge either. There are some piteous acts in this film, acts of desperation, anger, deplorable acts, and also moments of small wonder and human kindness. It encompasses the whole spectrum of emotions. Look, for example, at the scene near the end when Mary invites herself round to Tom and Gerri's house. Tom's brother, Ron, is staying around, as his wife has just died. Mary is clearly in a state, and is aware on some level of the awfulness of her actions, but she cannot help it. Gerri quietly looks at her. "It would have been nice if you'd rung first, Mary. This is our family." Calm, placid, and something a normal person would say. She's both angry at Mary, and also quietly understanding. Such rounded people in films are rare, and we savour the company of them. 

Indeed, the film as a whole is astonishingly well-rounded and complete, and you genuinely feel as though you could watch these people dine, wine, talk, laugh and cry for hours on end. Roger Ebert once said that he could watch a Fellini movie on the radio, and the same could be same here. It is a largely dialogue-driven film (if it even has any “drive” at all), and early on I tried a little experiment; I closed my eyes and I listened. I was astonished at how clear the words sounded, and how completely they created an image of the characters which turned out to be on screen.

Indeed, to say any more about this film would be to ruin the casual magic of watching it slowly, painfully, unfold. So I shall not. All I will say is that in a land of films which treat human beings as cattle and cannon fodder, a film like this which has such immense respect for us all, with our flaws and foibles and small triumphs, is one to be savoured, championed, respected and loved. It returns those virtues in kind, and tenfold. 

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