Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Review: Another Year

As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.

Basketcases are kind of director Mike Leigh's specialty. He's got one in just about every movie he's made, and even someone like Sally Hawkins' Poppy Cross from Happy-Go-Lucky is a high-functioning basketcase, whose telltale tics happen to be effervescent rather than mopey.

I'm not sure if any of his previous basketcases has made as much of an impression as Lesley Manville does in Another Year. Ostensibly not this film's main character, but the one that requires the heavy lifting in the acting department, Manville's Mary is an accident on the freeway you can't stop looking at: a four-car pileup of insecurities, rationalizations, stammerings and implosions.

The ostensible focus of the plot is actually Tom and Gerri Hepple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), a geologist and a therapist, who laughingly acknowledge their unfortunate kinship to the cartoon and cat and mouse. They live an even-keeled life together, in this case over the course of four seasons of the English calendar. The movie is structured as four chapters, one corresponding to each season, each using some kind of social gathering as the focal point of that season. Mary is essentially a side character -- an unwanted side character, at that, the kind of clueless whirlwind who always accepts casual invitations and then stays too long, usually drinking well past the point of indignity. She's Gerri's co-worker, but Gerri is too polite to spell out that she's no longer interested in being Mary's confidant.

Tom and Gerri have other acquaintances who come in and out of these episodes, such as their son (Oliver Maltman), Tom's brother (David Bradley), and an old friend of Tom's, who equals Mary in desperation and general disaster, named Ken (Peter Wright). Ken and Mary are probably perfect for each other, at least in terms of getting their just desserts, but Mary loathes Ken while preferring to focus her attentions on the Hepples' son, who's at least 20 years her junior. If you think Mary's going to recognize by the end that Ken is the key to her salvation, or at least a potentially stabilizing factor that could slow her descent towards oblivion, you haven't seen many a Leigh film.

Another Year proceeds at a low-key pace through, as it's in very little hurry to get anything accomplished in terms of plot. There are certainly meaningful developments over the course of these events, which are parceled out a bit like the titular events in Four Weddings and a Funeral (with a significantly different tone), but they may not be leading toward anything profound in terms of character arcs or breakthrough realizations. In fact, quite the opposite appears to be true. Anyone who finds that the movie lacks a certain momentum, then, would not be entirely unfounded in their complaint. One other problematic structural element is the introduction and then almost immediate disposal of a character played by Imelda Staunton, a woefully depressed patient of Gerri's, who gets two significant chunks of time on camera in the film's first ten minutes and then disappears entirely. What role she plays in what Leigh is trying to accomplish is unclear.

Then again, this is not a film to be measured by particular accomplishments. In fact, in true Leigh style, it is a portrait of sad characters, and characters who may be sadder than they actually realize.

And here is where which characters serve which functions becomes deceptively complex. Mary is the one who is truly prodded in the course of this narrative, the manic-depressive who is forever teetering on the verge of disaster, as hypnotically played by Manville. She even gets the film's final shot, which should not be revealed here.

However, she is not the one for whom this is just "another year." Surely, Mary has probably had years this tragic and this discombobulated in her past, and in fact, could not have gotten to this particular state of dysfunction without a number of such years. But the film's title is referring to something much more mundane. It's the Hepples who are experiencing a period of time that Leigh suggests is interchangeable for any other period of time in their apparently happy married lives. Even though they have their shit together, and appear to nourish each other and go to bed at night with smiles on their faces, perhaps it's they who are truly living an existence that is unexpectedly unfulfilling.

Or perhaps Leigh just thinks that life is painful for everyone, whether you're a notorious screw-up or an outwardly successful specimen of humanity.

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