Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010

Another Year

Directed by Mike Leigh

With Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen

Opens 12.29

As you might guess, four seasons pass in Mike Leigh's brilliantly insightful portrait of middle age, during which a happy couple named Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) tend their vegetable garden, attend a funeral, throw some small parties and generally lead a peaceful middle-class life. These affectionate hippies can curl up contentedly each night and reflect on how sweet their lives are.

If that sounds suspiciously cheery for Leigh, who brought us Naked and Vera Drake, meet Tom and Gerri's friends and family. Overweight, alcoholic, wheezing Ken (Peter Wight) might drop dead at any moment, but not until he's eaten that steak. He'd qualify for the title of loneliest man in the world if it weren't for Tom's brother Ronnie (David Bradley), who smiled last perhaps in the 1980s, before the birth of his beastly son Carl (Martin Savage). But by far the saddest creature of all is Mary (Lesley Manville, a frequent player in Leigh's films), a faded, pretty secretary who works with Gerri.

She's a single girl of about 50 whose only vision of the future is one in which she'll be part of a couple like Tom and Gerri — a hope somewhere south of dwindling. Leigh teases us with the notion that Mary and Ken could pair off and comfort each other, but Mary has the arrogance of the oblivious. She still believes she can do better. She's inappropriate, self-centered and romantically rapacious — even eyeing Tom and Gerri's son at one point — and it's a wonder that she and Gerri are friends. Or are they? Gerri keeps up the relationship partly out of amusement (Mary can liven up a party) and partly out of pity; behaving kindly to Mary makes her feel virtuous. But we see the way that pity can cause her friend an even deeper sort of pain.

Manville embodies wretched Mary so vividly that long after the crushingly astute Another Year is over, you imagine her, still rattling about London in her crappy car, her too-youthful outfits and the delusions of another year. She'll keep wearing the face she keeps in a jar by the door. What other choice is there for lonely people?