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Culture Reviews
Another Year /By M. Leigh/
35 mm 
By Peter Ellis
Review Top Sheet: Unlike their combative cartoon cat and mouse namesakes, our Tom and Gerri have been living in harmony for years. They enjoy their London suburban marital idyll, both with steady jobs and tending the allotment at the weekend, while their friends’ lives fall apart around them. Ken is a concern; Ronnie is a worry and as for Mary: well, Mary is something else.

Kind, sympathetic Gerri has taken her colleague Mary, one of life’s casualties, under her wing. At the kitchen table, over dinner and during summer barbeques, she and the couple’s other friends pour out their souls, lubricated with lashings of wine and beer. This ‘slice of life’ movie serves up twelve months’ worth of our heroes’ trials and tribulations for our examination and consideration.

Will you like this film?

Yes if: you’re already a Mike Leigh aficionado (you won’t be disappointed) or if not, you like your entertainment deep and slow with a large dash of sentiment.

No if: your taste is more for the action packed, film-star eye-candy led, neatly resolved Hollywoodesque.

Maybe if: you feel the need for vicarious counseling and prefer watching your self-help books dramatized to reading them.

Comments: Perhaps because they make us feel better about ourselves, or it’s simply voyeuristic, but other people’s woes are always fascinating. Leigh is expert at getting under his characters’ skin, of suggesting the fears, motivations and life experiences that contribute to each of their psychologies. And his cast are adept at conveying the hurt with the briefest of glimpses, the most economic of lines.

In fact, as the doyen of dysfunction, one gets the impression that Leigh is perplexed by what makes happiness. Closeness to the soil seems to be one ingredient. Tom, a geologist, spends his working days contemplating the London Clay, while he and his wife relax by tilling the earth and nurturing their crop of fruit and veg. As each season passes, the camera lingers on their shared bucolic paradise.

‘Another Year’ invites comparison to Leigh’s 1990 classic ‘Life Is Sweet’ but is less wide ranging, with fewer characters and not as many issues and incidents. It’s pared down to the essentials of ‘kitchen sink drama’, a form which first saw the light of day in the 1960s. It begs the question how long the genre has to run: all things, even good things, must come to an end.

Out-of-five star ratings:

Story: ****
Dialogue: ****
Substance: ****
Film craft: ****

Story and dialogue comments: When Leigh begins to make a film, he asks his actors to get into character and to improvise, “intimately” if need be (exactly how intimate is not revealed). The result of this playacting forms the basis of his script and in ‘Another Year’, Leigh has produced a powerful text, with the silences and what is unsaid as charged as what is uttered. The American Academy liked what they heard and the screenplay was nominated for this year’s Oscars but it lost out on the night to David Seidler and ‘The King’s Speech’.

Substance comments: Though brought up in northern England, Leigh has made London his home and his inspiration since attending acting school in 1960. Critic Ian Buruma, writing in the New York Review of Books says: "it is hard to get on a London bus or listen to the people at the next table in a cafeteria without thinking of Mike Leigh. Leigh's London is as distinctive as Fellini's Rome or Ozu's Tokyo."

At first working on stage plays, Leigh first came to the notice of a wider public with the TV productions ‘Nuts in May’ and ‘Abigail’s Party’ in the 1970s, with their satires of middle class pretensions. Film became more prominent in Leigh’s work following the death of his father in 1985 and his studies of working-class life are by turns endearing (‘Happy-go-Lucky’ 2008), brutal (‘Naked’ 1993) and emotionally unrelenting (‘Secrets and Lies’ 1996).

Throughout his career, Leigh has been a star-maker, kick starting the careers of his wife, Alison Steadman (‘Abigail's Party’), Gary Oldman and Tim Roth (‘Meantime’), and Jane Horrocks (‘Life is Sweet’). He has worked with a panoply of established celebrities, including Jim Broadbent, Kathy Burke and Julie Walters, who “comprises an impressive, almost representative, nucleus of outstanding British acting talent,” according to Leigh’s biographer, Michael Coveney.

Film craft comments: The quality of the acting in ‘Another Year’ is high across the board, from Mike Broadbent’s avuncular Tom, to his bristling nephew Carl, played by Martin Savage. Yet most praise must go to Lesley Manville for her portrayal of Mary and her increasingly desperate battle with the coming of age and the dying of options. The film’s cinematography does an excellent job in contrasting the domestic intimacy of the interiors with lofty skies in the outdoor scenes, while the string soundtrack adds to the growing melancholy. The film finishes with Mary and a final shot of heart aching poignancy.

A taste of the story: Mary (talking to Tom and Gerri): I bet he regrets it, deep down. I hope he does. He was my big love. But he was married. Well, what can you do, Tom? You can't walk around with a label saying, ‘Don't fall in love with me, I'm married’, can you?
Tom: Some people wear a ring. (He shows his)
Mary: He didn't. But he wasn't a bad person. He loved me.
Tom: Sounds to me like he was a duplicitous s**t.
Gerri: Tom! (Tom and Gerri exchange a look)

28.04.11
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