Film review: another year

by **

Dear Dad

The weary tone of drudgery implicit in the title, another year,  permeates the multi-layered fabric of this slow-paced film. The drama focuses on life’s inexorable march towards its twilight years. It resonates with honest depictions of physical decline and loneliness. The impact of this immensely powerful work will no doubt depend on where you are situated in your own life.

The movie opens with a desperately unhappy wife and mother, Jane (Imelda Staunton), who suffers from insomnia and is treated for depression. It ends with another helplessly unhappy woman, Mary (Leslie Manville), who is enroute to a similar fate. In between is another year — made up of four seasons and four chapters.

Gerri (Ruth Sheen) and Tom (Jim Broadbent) are a happily-married couple in a near-perfect relationship. She is a medical counsellor and he is a geologist. They live in a comfortable middle-class suburban home in London. Their son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), a practising lawyer, visits them from time to time. Gerri and Tom spend their free time tending to an allotment of land where they plant fruit and grow vegetables. While they are generally satisfied with their lives, the couple are pointedly reminded of their deteriorating faculties.

In the clinic where she counsels depressives like Jane, Gerri is friendly with the office secretary, Mary — a divorcee in her fifities. In denial of her own age, Mary dresses too young and behaves too coquettishly. But beneath her bubbly persona lays a discontented soul. She seeks solace in Gerri and Tom’s hospitality but secretly hopes to meet someone through their association.

Ken (Peter Wight) is Tom’s childhood friend. Like Mary, he is reluctantly single. He blames his career stagnation on others’ progress and drowns his troubles in drink, smoke and food. Perceiving him as unsuccessful and unattractive, Mary recoils from his overt advances. Instead, she sidles up to Joe like a cat yearning for a scratch.

Director and writer, Mike Leigh, skilfully correlates life with the passing of the seasons: a growing foetus in spring to a death in winter. More subtly, he also weaves Mary’s emotional journey into the seasonal colours: her dewy dream in spring to the grinding reality in the harsh winter chill.

As Leigh vividly contrasts different socio-economic classes, he highlights the blatant ignorance amongst the affluent of the struggles of the poor and suggests a prevailing stigma in the holding of lowly unprofessional jobs.

While the film seems steeped in moral judgment — “You make your own choices (in life),” Gerri observes sanctimoniously — it acknowledges hostile elements which encroach on one’s choices — when loneliness is engendered by death.

The drama also renders dubious the sacrosanct notion of  ‘friend in need’. Even when Gerri is dismayed by a patient’s drinking habits, the couple over-indulges Ken and Mary in gallons of alcohol. And, in spite of her profession, Gerri is unable to counsel Mary whom she intends to refer to a fellow colleague.

Sheen and Broadbent are seasoned actors whose non-acting talent almost makes them a couple of our friends. Maltman’s Joe combines occasional pensiveness with a sardonic streak that contrasts interestingly with his girlfriend’s (Karina Fernandez) caricatural character. While Wight is marvellous as the oafish but deeply lonely Ken and David Bradley is memorable as Tom’s inscrutable brother, Ronnie, Manville is the standout performer who enables her character Mary to drive this compelling film. From her palette of expressions, she deftly applies a blend of emotions to each scene — like colour on canvas.

Gary Yeshon punctuates the everyday dialogue with heart-stirring voices from the classical guitar and the oboe. Dick Pope’s cinematography effectively captures Mary’s descent into despair between standing legs as merriment hovers over her head. Most notably though, Leigh has directed this brilliantly constructed film with candour and control.

In the end, whether the production is ultimately life-affirming, unsettling or both clearly depends on where you are in another year.