Mike Leigh’s Another Year takes a look into the lives of one happy British couple and the constellation of dysfunctional people around them. It’s touching, but at times it can feel like it lasts as long as its title.
Tom and Gerri Hepple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) are the aforementioned couple. They’re in their 60s, approaching retirement, and they’ve carved out a nice little life for themselves. Tom works as an engineering geologist, while Gerri is a psychological counselor at a hospital in London. They spend their weekends working their tract of a community garden together. Their son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), has a good head on his shoulders. They’re genuinely happy together.
Their friends — those we see much of, at least — are not nearly so lucky. Tom’s childhood friend, Ken (Peter Wight), is alone living in Hull. He also feels marginalized by his younger colleagues, though he doesn’t know what he’d do with himself if he retired. Gerri’s friend from work, Mary (Lesley Manville) is pretty obviously clinically depressed. She consistently makes terribly flighty decisions, which don’t help matters at all. Tom’s brother, Ronnie (David Bradley), loses his wife, and he’s effectively already lost any relationship with his son, Carl (Martin Savage).
There’s not really any narrative arc to speak of, at least not in the traditional sense. The action, such as it is, takes place on four vignettes spread out through the seasons of a year in these characters’ lives. We see them laugh and cry and love and lose as time slowly slips by. And despite their friends’ dramatic and histrionic turns, Tom and Gerri are there, holding each other up through it all.
Manville plays the most complicated part, and one could be forgiven for thinking that the film is really about her character. She owns the screen as Mary, whether she’s excitedly hashing out her reasoning behind buying a used car, or drunkenly ranting about the course of her life, or quietly trying to make some human contact with the stonily mourning Ronnie.
The most fascinating relationship, though, is that between Tom and Gerri. They actually say relatively little themselves, and yet they convey so much without saying a single word. Broadbent and Sheen have a real chemistry, and they feel like they really have been married for almost forty years. But just as important as the relationship between the two characters is their relationship with their house. They fit snugly within it, as if it’s grown up around them throughout their life together.
The pace, though, is a killer for some audiences without the patience for a movie without a strong, unitary story to tell. There was a steady trickle of people leaving the screening I attended, presumably out of frustration at a movie that presents no readily available narrative by which to grasp it. But neither does life come with a neat, clean storyline. If Barney’s Version presents the story of a life, Another year simply presents lives, and lets us make of them what we will. And if a conversation takes a long time, shot through with heavy pauses, then so be it.
Leigh is willing to let things take their natural time. Not all audiences are up for it, but those who are will be richly rewarded.
Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: pass.