One of the keys to a film which depicts the relationships and dynamics between a group of people is being able to relate to the characters. Almost, the viewers need to know and understand the characters to the extent that we can predict their reactions to situations. Another Year does just that; as it charts a year in the life of a family and their friends. Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) are a middle-aged couple who really love their gardening, and the film follows their emotional ups and downs over the course of a year.
Director Mike Leigh seems to excel at getting actors to give really convincing, awkward, nervous performances. Abigail's Party was particularly cringe-worthy, but essences of those performances are on display in Another Year too. In this respect Lesley Manville as Mary (family friend & work colleague of Gerri) is particularly great. Her character never stops talking, is socially unaware, and is borderline psychotic. Nowhere is this clearer than her relationship with Tom and Gerri’s son Joe (Olivier Maltman). Having been childhood friends she flirts with him a little too much the wrong side of playful. Quite clearly Joe has no interest, so when one day he turns up with a new girlfriend and Mary happens to stop round for tea: bang! Mary practically shuts down, she suddenly stops talking, can’t look anyone in the eye and pounds even more red wine than usual. All the little facial nuances of Mary’s emotional state are spot on; this example being one of the instances we know exactly how the character will react.
Another character worth mentioning is Ken (Peter Wright). In his first real scene having dinner with Tom and Gerri, he is stuffing his face with food, glugging the red wine, then the John Smith's, probably smoking (I can’t remember), all the while mopping his brow with a napkin because he is sweating profusely (he’s quite hefty). I expected him to have a heart attack then and there! It’s cringe-worthy because he is obviously so unhappy with his life; but when his amorous moves on Mary are soundly rebuffed, the uncomfortable level goes up to 11! There is also a great turn by David Bradley as the recently widowed Ronnie, though he doesn’t say very much. It is his silent stoicism as Mary is desperately trying to talk to him that is excruciating yet wildly funny at the same time. Compared to everyone else Tom and Gerri, far from being cartoon characters, are the emotional rocks that everyone else can count on; Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are both perfect for these roles.
Breaking the narrative into the four seasons of the year allows each section to have a different feel. In particular Winter is very monochrome, especially fitting as this is when the funeral for Ronnie’s wife is. Given the subject of much of the film, Mike Leigh manages to keep the ambiance away from doom and gloom. A lot of the scenes have an edge to them, but not so much that it’s oppressive. The final scene is a good example of this. Set at a dinner table the camera pans slowly around as we see everyone there; Tom is telling a story, nervous laughter from those present; until finally the camera stops and lingers on Mary before fading out. I think perhaps for the first time we don’t know what she’s thinking: she laughs at the appropriate points, she glugs her wine, but her eyes dart between everyone at the table; and I’m not sure if she’s trying to come to terms with her lot in life, does she want out, or is she scheming?
A film unlike anything I’ve seen before (apart from maybe Abigail’s Party), quirky, squirmy, well crafted and superbly acted by all involved.