Mundane problems for ordinary people, that is Mike Leigh’s target as a director, making him the most compassionate filmmaker in Great Britain. Another Year is another pointed injection into the despair of lonely older middle-class people and can stand proudly alongside Leigh’s winning mercy talks with hearts of gold. Compassion and simplicity win the day in this story of Tom and Gerri Hepple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) an older couple living a cozy life as professionals in London. Gerri’s colleague and friend Mary (Lesley Manville), however, is not as happy. She is financially and emotionally unstable and thinks that finding a man and buying a car will solve all of her problems.
Another Year is sad but not depressing. We feel Leigh’s warm gentle hug embracing the characters at all times. Notice an early scene at a bar when a slightly tipsy Mary pours out her emotions to Gerri while eyeing a man across the room. Notice her silent dismay when his girlfriend comes and takes him away. We respond to the sadness inherit in her disappointment. But we also can’t help but smile because we know that Leigh cares for her.
Tom and Gerri represent Mary’s ideal. They are well-off, educated, and cultured. They take Mary under their wing out of sympathy for the poor lost soul. Sometimes they are taken aback and don’t seem to know quite what to say to her. But, as a psychologist, Gerri is no stranger to personal crisis.
To another degree, the Hepples are the shoulders to cry on for their friend Ken (Peter Wight) who, unlike Mary, has plenty of money for both a holiday and a car, but has lost confidence with age. He laments that the pubs he used to frequent are no longer “his”, but have been taken over by younger crowds. Money isn’t everything, after all, and Ken refuses to retire because he is afraid to face the world. His job is the only validity he has left.
Ken likes Mary and, indeed, if she returned the affection they could both solve one another’s problems. But Mary is enamored with the Hepples’s son Joe (Oliver Maltman) and doesn’t take it well when he brings home a new girlfriend (Karina Fernandez).
Another Year is an unusually balanced film with humanity, humor, and tenderness with a bit of tears thrown in. In a sense, Tom and Gerri are avatars for Leigh, working as the grandparents of the neighborhood, bringing kind words and good cheer to all.
There are signs, sadly, of Leigh beginning to slip. His cast is fascinating as always, but the dialogue doesn’t always do them justice. Leigh’s compassion can’t hide the fact that that better writing could have made the characters more interesting. Nevertheless, he has made a good movie full of insight and warmth. Another Year is one of the most sincere portraits of loneliness.
The best thing about the movie is Lesley Manville’s performance as Mary, which peaks when she discovers Joe’s girlfriend. Her look of heartbreak is nuanced and perfectly understated, which makes her bond with Tom’s recently widowed brother Ronnie (David Bradley), all the more touching.
Mary is given a chance at the end and Leigh winks his eye at her. She has a claim to culture which gives her an entrance into the closing dinner conversation; she has been to the Greek islands. However, the lingering look on her face while the sounds of the dinner party silence out indicates how far removed she is from the world she missed out on.