This is my first longish film review here: Another Year.
Another Year is divided into four seasons of “another year” in the lives of decent folk, all aging along and getting by—SOME, much more happily than others. The winter segment is significantly more involved than the seasons preceding it in terms of drama, but offers a perspective just jarring enough to scramble your perspective a little, and not enough to point any fingers.
Before it, we grow to love the film’s central characters, a charming older couple, Tom and Gerry. In winter however they must travel to Hull, Tom’s hometown, for the funeral of his recently dead sister-in-law. We meet his brother Ronnie, who (now alone) lives in a dungeon of an apartment which hasn’t been refurnished in forty years. Before this point we had only heard of Ronnie once from Tom’s perspective in the shelter of his fine London home, joking about how big of a bastard he was. When we meet Ronnie however, he less a bastard than a wilted old man. The bastard Tom muses of must have died some ages before, as today Ronnie doesn’t have the confidence speak. He sips beer and watches television. There is little to do in life when you are poor, old, and alone.
This is a dreary world where the luxuries of Tom and Gerry’s ways are unheard of. No one revels in passion or love, no one can afford the resources to plant gardens, obsess over wine… nor does anyone really know one another. The woman in the casket died with no possible idea of the intimacy Tom and Gerry share for themselves. No one knew her, not even Ronnie. Tom and Gerry’s kind gestures are tragically patronizing in this scenario.
The funeral is barren. Ronnie’s hotheaded son, whom no one had seen in years, appears late—coming and going spewing angry threats against his last remaining family and dispersing the the meaningless mourning party with his malevolence. The other two guests are her coworkers and have little to say. Ronnie is left with nothing: no son, no friends, nor his shell of a wife. He has a brother, but the differences between them are insurmountable. We are given hope in a touching moment where Tom invites Ronnie back to London, an attempt to distract him from the reality that the rest of his life will be spent emptily. The truth is, this invitation hardly remedies anything at all. In London Tom and Gerry resume their particularly elevated life together while Ronnie naps, watches television and drinks—albeit, he a nicer television, nicer beer, and a nicer couch, but between he and his family there is no connection, and he is still a lonely man.
A woman named Mary, who Gerry regretfully spends much of her time with, appears starving and hung over one morning as Ronnie sits alone. Mary is neurotically desperate for male attention, a terminally alone secretary at Gerry’s work who pathetically attempted to seduce Tom and Gerry’s much younger son. Since that incident she has been kept distant from the one home she was once welcome in unconditionally. Ronnie lets her in however, and they talk and have a nice time. In their little dialogue, they communicate in a way that neither Tom nor Gerry could ever contrive.
It emerges that this film is about class—some are lucky, and some are not. We learn that Tom and Gerry met during college, and their decadent lifestyle was made possible via a privileged education. Though we grow to love them, as they are bright, funny, and very good to one another—the winter segment begins to explores the contradictions of their lives. Leigh takes us into the rest of the world, the have nots, which for all Tom and Gerry’s kindness may offer, they will never “have,” as Tom and Gerry can. In the final dinner scene, Tom and Gerry go on rambling about their worldliness and many travels in the company of Ronnie and Mary, who never had the resources to dream of such decadence. But that is all we get, and the film ends. The year is up.
Now, the film does all this fairly well in the one winter segment, but all in all makes for a confused picture containing only wonderful isolated components. I didn’t get to the other three seasons, but I can assure you they had little to do with any of this apart from the occasional visit from Mary to remind us that her life is miserable—and honestly, I much preferred those seasons. The story is structured as follows: “In Spring, this happens, how nice, so in Summer this happens, how nice; therefore in Fall this happens, very nice, but in Winter everything changes! Someone we’ve never heard of dies and it’s a big chunk of the movie! There’s a crazy asshole in the family! And you should feel bad about liking this movie you bourgeois scum!”
So, the film’s ending segment comes as a kind of deus ex machina, and it confuses drama. Ronnie’s bummed out life and Mary’s unexpected visit are the executioner swinging an axe into his own forehead in the Atheist’s Tragedy. It’s interesting that a film takes the side of a character who appears for the first time in the final act and hardly says a word. Tom and Gerry’s decadence, if you could call it that, isn’t realized until it is quite randomly contextualized, and the pseudo-class conscious edge this film closes with is kind of generic, and cheapening. Only the great performances hold the ending together.
Perhaps Another Year’s best aspect is its performances, not its unity. It has gotten a lot of attention for Manville’s performance as Mary, which is very good, more or less dominating her scenes in Another Year with her vulnerable, forlorn puppy eyes. But even then, a performance requiring one to wear emotions so visibly is like a playground for any actor, and I don’t think the Mary character, though believably executed, is particularly original.. Frowny faces and tears and having a real bad time are often mistaken for signs of brilliance. Those my dears, are the easy bits.
As far as brilliant performances go, I want to mention those by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen in particular. Broadbent and Sheen are timeless as a pair. The film is worthwhile just to see them engaging in conversation, picking tomatoes, drinking wine. Rarely are two actors so in love, and their presence together is stunningly sweet. I wish the movie would have just been about them getting along for two hours, then I would really have had something to think about. A quality film about happy seniors has yet to be made since Ozu passed on. So, Mike Leigh, you missed your fucking chance.