Mike Leigh's Another Year got Saturday off to a very strong start. While it might be a bit quotidian for jury president Tim Burton's taste, it's an incredibly subtle and moving film that certainly shines a spotlight on Lesley Manville, pictured, a Leigh veteran since 1988's High Hopes. Though it seems to focus on suburban couple Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), it's Manville's character, Mary, who stays longest in the mind, thanks to a powerhouse performance comparable to David Thewliss's in Naked and very likely to be applauded at the Baftas, if not even the Oscars. Gerri is a counsellor at a local health centre, Mary is the secretary to the doctors there, and what begins at first as quite a friendly extracurricular friendship takes a sour turn when Mary develops a fondness for Gerri's 30-year-old son Joe. Though it stops way short of rape and madness, Another Year is in some ways Mike Leigh's A Streetcar Named Desire, and Manville's incredible fearlessness really makes the piece something special: now 56, and incredibly well preserved for it, Manville goes headfirst into Mary's insecurities, clinging to youth, drinking too much and forming unstable relationships with ever more unsuitable older (and married men). Gerri is sympathetic, Tom less so, and when Joe finally gets a girlfriend (Happy Go Lucky's wonderful flamenco teacher, Karina Fernandez), Mary takes against her, testing Gerri's tolerance to its limit. Unlike many of Leigh's more commercial films (Vera Drake, Secrets & Lies), there's no specific tipping point or bombshell revelation, but the film remains engrossing throughout and is a possible bet for the Palme D'Or.
Manville's closest rival for the Best Actress award is the Korean star of Im Sangsoo's The Housemaid, a hokey but very well put-together thriller about a naive working class girl who goes to work for a rich family. The woman of the household is heavily pregnant with her second child, so her sexually frustrated husband starts an affair with the maid. When the maid becomes pregnant, her ageing superior tells the wife's mother, who instigates a campaign of harassment in the hopes of making the girl give up her child, either by miscarriage or abortion. There's no suspense as such, just a very foreboding sense of menace: this is an involving, stately film about the lengths the rich will go to to bury their secrets, and their brutal sense of entitlement. The ending is (literally) a bit overheated, but its strange, strange, Lynchian coda could find favour with Burton.
Menace accrues too in Chatroom, Aaron Johnson's first post-Kick-Ass release. Directed by Hideo Nakata, the film suffers perhaps from its directors lack of fluency in English and begins rather terribly in a clumsy way that instantly conjures up the story's roots in theatre. Johnson plays William, a London loner who sets up an internet chatroom called Chelsea Teens. After vetting the people who join him there, he picks five and sets up a password so that only they can enter. In the real world, William is a surly, self-harming horror who hates his JK Rowling-like mother, but online he is charming and charismatic, encouraging the others to embrace their inner rebel. It soon becomes clear, though, that William has a sinister purpose. Prying and probing into his online friends' private lives, he begins to poke at their weaknesses, finally picking the introverted Jim (Matthew Beard) as the boy he will bully into committing suicide while he watches. The ending, when the online action transfers into real life, is unbelievable and silly, but the middle stretch is dark and compelling. There are none of the J-horror shocks you might expect, but the mood is agreeably nasty as William pores over eerie suicide footage that adds to the unsettling ambience.
Coming soon: Rubber, Inside Job and Countdown To Zero...