In Mike Leigh’s Another Year, a galaxy of sad planets orbit a resolutely radiant sun. Over the course of four seasons, a happy and too-cutely named couple, Tom and Gerri, entertain their friends and family, most of whom are miserable as they try to latch on to even a sliver of the contentment their hosts enjoy. Companionship is the film’s focus, though in one case, a woman who’s asked what she’d like to be different in her life responds simply: “A different life.”
That woman is played by Imelda Staunton, so brilliant in Leigh’s Vera Drake and who here has a face so pinched in misery, just watching her makes you tense. Alas, she’s only in the film’s opening scenes as an uncooperative patient of Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a therapist. But Staunton’s indelibly unhappy expression—and her masterful rendering of torment—is matched by that of Lesley Manville, who plays Gerri’s co-worker Mary. Mary is the only constant throughout Tom and Gerri’s seasons (the film starts in spring and ends in winter), a hyper and emotionally needy woman who’s determined not to look or act her middle-age. When she’s at Gerri’s house—which is often—she babbles about her avalanche of problems, from a new car that keeps breaking down and getting her lost to her failed past relationships, one involving a married man. She’s so desperate for affection that she even hits on Gerri’s son, Joe (Oliver Maltman).
Mary grates, to be sure, with her ever-moving mouth, inappropriate clothes, and seeming inability to take a breath and relax. But Manville bookends Staunton’s expression in an exquisite final scene: By winter, Mary’s wavering optimism is spent, and her relationship with Gerri strained. Still, she’s at her home, surrounded by others who are chattering happily. But then Leigh muffles the chatter and trains his camera on Mary, tuning out both the get-together and, Leigh suggests, life. Her face is etched in despair. It’s an exquisitely sad image.
Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri, meanwhile, are an aging couple who seem to have beaten the odds and are approaching retirement with decades of cheery memories and a home big enough to welcome the less fortunate in their lives. That includes Ken (Peter Wight), an overweight heart attack waiting to happen who turns to food and alcohol in an attempt to quell his personal and professional dissatisfaction, and Tom’s brother, Ronnie (David Bradley), who’s lost his wife and is estranged from his very angry adult son. Tom and Gerri feed them and listen to them, smiling and nodding and offering whatever advice they can without pandering. Broadbent and Sheen are warmth incarnate, their Tom and Gerri comfortable in their lived-in bodies and sympathetic perhaps to a fault. At any rate, you can understand why the waywards gravitate toward them.
Another Year is a gentle roller-coaster of highs (Joe’s introduction of a girlfriend) and lows (Ronnie, nearly silent, is heartbreaking after his wife’s death, as is Mary’s falling-out with Gerri). It’s typical Leigh fare—both happy and sad, about as realistic as a film can get. Its message is perhaps best summed up in one of Gerri’s asides as she talks to Mary about one of her other guests: “Life’s not always kind, is it?”