Another Year is a tale of haves and have-nots—those who are touched by grace and those who are not. In collaboration with a gifted group of actors he’s been working with for years, director Mike Leigh illuminates the gap between life’s haunted loners and those lucky enough to be able to form deep and long-lasting relationships.
At the center of the story are Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a loving couple whose warmth and ease—with themselves, with each other, and with other people—makes them and their cozy home a magnet for their longtime friends, particularly Gerri’s workmate Mary (Lesley Manville), a nervous wreck who tries to camouflage her crippling anxiety with torrents of chitchat.
A social worker who treats her friends and family with the same kind consideration she bestows on her clients, Gerri is a more mature and less effusive version of Happy-Go-Lucky’s Poppy, able to see the good in everyone and unafraid in the face of psychological instability or free-floating rage that would frighten most of us. As usual in his movies, Leigh presents us with a set of fully realized characters, decent people whose precisely life-sized problems and emotions draw us in as naturally as Gerri offers a visitor a cup of tea. And as usual, he finds drama in the moral decisions that arise in the course of everyday life. The main one this time is Tom and Gerri’s dilemma over whether to let Mary remain in their family circle when she becomes a threat to their son’s happiness.
The staunch realism of the look and feel of the film and the actors’ resolutely unglamorous faces (“Obviously, Ruth and I don’t do anything peculiar with our faces off screen,” said Manville in the Q&A after the press screening) creates the illusion that we’re watching the lives of ordinary people unfold. An as in life, drama can develop quickly, even when nothing out of the ordinary seems to be happening. The tension grows particularly thick when Tom’s furious nephew bursts onto the scene, leaking danger as surely as a cocked gun. Unsettling music, sparingly used, and lingering close-ups of the increasingly abject and twitchy Mary also help make the agony of alienation painfully palpable.
Watching Mary’s steady deterioration under Gerri’s luminous gaze raises interesting questions about the benefits and limits of friendship. Does Gerri and Tom’s friendship keep Mary (barely) afloat emotionally, or does it just make things worse, immersing her in a family she longs for but will never quite be part of? Do they truly love her or are they just being kind? And does that even matter, as long as she has someplace where she can feel welcome?
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.