Mike Leigh is often accused of talking down to his characters. With Another Year, this fan of the British auteur can see why. Leigh’s latest is a lovingly told but insufficiently nuanced story of four seasons, a year in the lives of a happy couple and their miserably single friends. It begins in spring with a close-up of a face locked in abject misery: Asked by a counselor how happy she is on a scale from one to 10, Janet (Imelda Staunton) says one, in effect setting the tone for much of the film. The only happiness here belongs to Gerri (Ruth Sheen) and her husband, Tom (Jim Broadbent), whose relationship is as organic as the vegetables they grow in their backyard, but what’s their secret? No one’s asking, including Leigh.
The filmmaker, like Eric Rohmer before him, is a keen observer of emotional character, but Gerri and Tom’s relationship, though never sentimentalized, suggests in its apparent perfection a kind of impossible ideal; from Lesley Manville’s perpetually frazzled Mary, who our own Matt Noller smartly dubbed a “tragic photo negative” of Sally Hawkins’s Poppy from the more ambitiously conceived Happy-Go-Lucky, to Peter Wight’s obese Ken, a heart attack waiting to happen, no one seems capable of the couple’s sense of bliss. But while Leigh may not adequately probe the secrets of Gerri and Tom’s great joy, and how they’ve passed it on to their sarcastic son (Oliver Maltman), the filmmaker at least makes clear that they don’t wish to throw it in anyone’s face.
Indeed, by the time winter comes, and with it the death of a human life, it becomes abundantly clear that this droll little patchwork pretends to capture nothing more, nothing less than what its title declares—just another year in the life of a small community of friends whose emotional ups and downs, like the seasons, wear on them but do not defeat them. That we don’t know what Mary did to anger Gerri and Tom sometime between autumn and winter ultimately matters less than the warm embrace Gerri gives Mary after seeing how her friend’s guilt has robbed her of her spirit. Leigh, a lover of misfits and strange ducks with funny faces and even funnier voices, wants us to understand that a house of forgiveness is one without condescension. It’s a minor lesson but a heartfelt one that reflects kindly on the man that gives it.