Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a therapist, and Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geologist, are happily married, but mildly concerned that their lawyer son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), is single. They don't quite realise how Mary (Lesley Manville), a fragile work colleague of Gerri's, has come to depend on the couple's friendship. Over the course of a year, at Sunday gatherings, Mary makes faux pas which strain the relationship.
It’s a good thing that Mike Leigh has such a consistent track record, since he makes films which would be impossible to pitch to a panel of studio execs. The ‘high concept’ of Another Year is four Sunday afternoons in different seasons, focusing on a still-happy, middle-aged couple and their less well-adjusted friends and relations — and not much actually happening.
It’s all about cups of tea in the kitchen or garden after sessions at the allotment, and the surface dialogue is all about trivia: a saga with a used car which turns out to be a disaster, the fellow with an interesting job who has already bored his friends and family with its details to such an extent that he downgrades himself to a hole-digger, genial reminiscences of wilder youth activities at pop festivals or on the football terraces, long-standing jokes and resentments no-one feels the need to explain but which come round over and over. When someone new to the set-up notices that the central couple are called Tom and Gerri, Gerri (Ruth Sheen) deadpans, “We’ve learned to live with it.” That’s as much of a message as the film runs to, and yet it’s rich in humour, suspense and profundity. Because it seems so uneventful — an old friend visits, the son turns up with a new girlfriend, a sister-in-law dies off screen — every tiny incident, line and even look registers.
Throughout his career, Leigh has worked with a series of outstanding actresses in creating characters who have entered the national consciousness: Bev (Alison Steadman) in Abigail’s Party, Cyn (Brenda Blethyn) in Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton), Poppy (Sally Hawkins) in Happy-Go-Lucky. In Another Year, Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent selflessly underplay as a couple who often don’t need to say more than, “Well…” to each other to convey how they feel, allowing Lesley Manville to deliver the knockout performance. Whether getting tipsy and repeating a joke she’s obviously made before (stamping several times and saying, “That’s my carbon footprint”) or fending off an even more desperate singleton (Peter Wight, looking like a public awareness advert for all the symptoms of early cardiac arrest) or disastrously expressing a small disappointment in cutting words when presented with a better-balanced newcomer to the circle, Manville’s Mary is a vivid, unforgettable character. Like most of Leigh’s women, Mary verges on archetype or caricature, but is entirely alive and ultimately tragic. There’s an emotional rollercoaster in a single, climactic scene in the ‘winter’ section as a near-cracked-up Mary makes an unexpected visit to mend fences with her friends and finds only Tom’s taciturn, just-widowed, almost-ghostly brother Ronnie (David Bradley) at home, then tries desperately to make conversation with the remote, bewildered man. This is the Leigh method in a nutshell: it’s a sitcom set-up in a drably realistic world, and uses the comedy of embarrassment to dig deep into the psyche. With its structure and rigorous look, this evokes some of the autumnal or wintery achievements of Ingmar Bergman, but in its precise details — without ever losing a sense of these characters as individuals, you keep muttering, “How English” — Another Year may be as close as British cinema can get to the Japanese master of seasonal tea ceremonies and dutifully happy families, Yasujirô Ozu.
Measured in pace, yet thoroughly gripping and completely accessible. The title soft-sells the picture, but it's among the best of this or any year. And Manville should clear some shelf space for well-deserved awards.