Definitely not destined to be called one of the feel-good movies of the year, Mike Leigh’s slice-of-middle-class-British-life character drama Another Year is a penetrating study of happiness, the search for happiness, and the impossibility of happiness for some. It was made in Leigh’s unique fashion, which is to say that he started out with a premise and characters, discussed what he wanted with his actors, and sent them off to develop their characters on their own. After that, he took what they’d come up with and crafted the screenplay. The results have the realism of improvisation without the drearily uninteresting, unfocused dialogue that marks most such movies. And the results in this case are deeply compassionate—even for characters who may not “deserve” that compassion.
The film follows a year—divided into four seasons—in the life of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a slightly past-middle-aged, seemingly content, slightly above middle class couple. Both are employed. Tom is a geological engineer and Gerri works as psychologist for the National Health. In fact the film opens with a vignette of Gerri trying to counsel a catastrophically depressed patient, Janet (a cameo for Imelda Staunton), who rates herself one on one-to-10 scale. When asked what would improve her life, she responds almost inaudibly by saying, “Another life.” In a sense, this is the key scene in the film, because the film is about that elusive thing called happiness. In the context of the film, Tom and Gerri are at least near the top of the scale, while Janet has reached the very bottom. Most of the characters we meet are somewhere inbetween, edging toward one end or the other.
Tom and Gerri are the connecting threads for the other characters, most of whom seem drawn to them because of their happiness. Tom and Gerri have a pleasant home. They garden together at a community garden. They work at their careers. They cook for their friends and always seem to be there for them in a nonjudgmental manner. If they are a little pleased with themselves and the apparent happiness they’ve achieved, they don’t show it—nor do they let any sense of exasperation they feel toward their friends show. The most consistently difficult of these is Gerri’s co-worker Mary (Lesley Manville), whose situation provides the film with its dramatic arc.
We first meet Mary at work and tag along as she and Gerri go out for a drink. Mary is someone who describes herself—with unconscious irony—as someone who sees the glass half-full. It quickly becomes apparent that she’s so desperately obsessed with finding that other half that she’s constantly draining glasses and bottles of wine. All the while, she’s pretending to be have a good time, plotting her schemes for attaining happiness—and becoming a public embarrassment in the bargain. She drinks too much, talks too loudly, stays too long, and has an alarming tendency to think that men who aren’t interested in her are. This even extends to Tom and Gerri’s 30-ish son, Joe (Oliver Maltman). Mary may be a few years younger than his parents, but she pretends she’s much younger and acts (she thinks) accordingly.
Tom and Gerri never quite complain—even to each other—about Mary, even when she passes out and has to sleep over, or shows up in a confused, drunken state on their doorstep. They mostly adopt a “What can you do?” attitude or make nonspecific comments between themselves about how “It’s too bad about Mary.” In a way, they’re passive enablers of her actions. Then again, without them it’s unclear what Mary has. Attempts to have her socialize with their other friends aren’t major successes. The one who shows an interest in her is hardly a catch, but then neither is she. All the same, she responds to his advances with outrage. And so it goes, but that’s how it’s bound to be in a movie like this, which is, as the title says, simply Another Year.
Nothing earthshaking is going to happen. This isn’t a movie about plot, but about characters and small (to us, at least) daily dramas. It can almost be said both nothing and everything happens within its confines, especially since the self-deluded Mary appears to be possibly on the verge of opening up to the most taciturn character in the film at the very end, but that possible story would be for yet another year. Rated PG-13 for some language.