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February 10, 2011

Movie Review – Another Year (2010)


Another Year offers a sympathetic and penetrating portrayal of ordinary unhappiness, but is most remarkable as a study of ordinary happiness, a state seldom depicted realistically in movies.

Long-time happily married couple Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen) are the calm center of writer-director Mike Leigh’s latest film. We get to know them in the course of four episodes, one per season from spring to winter, from “another year” in their lives. We also meet some of their friends, their son Joe and his girlfriend, and Tom’s brother and his estranged son. Among that circle of family and friends the people we come to know the best are the neediest: Gerri’s co-worker Mary (Lesley Manville) and Ken (Peter Wight), an old friend from university days.

Leigh has an unusual, if not singular, script-writing method. He casts the film based on character sketches and then, over some months, works with the actors one-on-one and in small group sessions where the actors develop the characters through improvisation. The final script, which is filmed with little deviation, is thus the product of extensive improv and significant collaboration between writer and actors. The actors’ investment in the process contributes to the extraordinary lived-in quality that is a hallmark of Leigh’s films.

The episodic narrative of Another Year likewise contributes to making the viewer feel like she is eavesdropping on lives in progress. Or, not an eavesdropper so much as a fellow house guest with Mary and Ken, except without the alcohol problem and with emotional distance, so we can take the clear-eyed look at their lives that they seem incapable of. Leigh as director does not use the overt techniques of indie realism (for instance, the movie has good lighting and a score, albeit a restrained one), but his unobtrusive camerawork is well suited to the naturalistic performance style.

While a product of collaboration, the script is very far from being haphazard or artless. In fact, it is carefully constructed to support the “random scenes from a life” aesthetic. For example, Tom’s brother Ronnie appears for the first time in the “winter” episode. The film is able to drop us at his doorstep at the beginning of the episode without preamble because it has laid the groundwork for the meeting in the most natural way possible, when in an earlier episode, Ronnie came up in conversation when Ken was over for supper and he and Tom were reminiscing about the old hometown.

More fundamental to the film’s purpose is the behavior that is both completely organic and a perfect encapsulation of what is wrong, or right, with the characters’ lives. Tom and Gerri are exactly the sort of people who do grow their own tomatoes in a community garden, but it is also an obvious symbol for the disciplined care and hard work they have invested in their shared life. Mary meanwhile is exactly the sort of person to believe that buying a car will change her life, to buy a clunker and congratulate herself on getting a good deal, and to blame all the ensuing parking and speeding tickets on bad luck.

3 1/2 stars


Tom and Ken reminisce about “the Clough glory years.” Find out what they’re talking about by watching The Damned United by King’s Speech director Tom Hooper. Mike Leigh’s prior film was 2008’s Happy-Go-Lucky, featuring a woman who could find the bright side on the dark side of the moon.