dir: Mike Leigh (UK, 2010)
MGS rating: 8.1
JM rating: 9.0
This “dialogue review” of Mike Leigh’s Another Year is a joint-venture of White City Cinema and my wife Jillian’s feminist blog Exploring Feminisms. I first saw the film theatrically last January and we recently watched it together on blu-ray. This naturalistic drama, one of my favorites of the year, tells the story of a year in the life of a sixty-something married couple and their relationships with their closest friends and family.
JM: In a nutshell, Another Year is the story of a couple in middle age who are happily married, but are surrounded by friends who are unhappy. What I loved most about this film was the relationship between Tom and Gerri (who I perceive to be the main two characters). It’s easy to watch it and believe that these two people really have long-term co-habitation figured out. I think it’s rare in film to see a long-term monogamous/married couple in a successful relationship. Your thoughts?
MGS: I think you’ve hit upon one of the most remarkable aspects of the film and one that made a big impression on me when I first saw it in the theater at the beginning of 2011. Tom and Gerri are indeed a happy, well-adjusted couple and it is weird to see that at the center of a movie! But after watching it a second time on blu-ray I think one could also argue that Mary is the “main character” because she appears in all four segments and she serves as the catalyst for almost all of the drama. It seems like Tom and Gerri remain consistent throughout the film but Mary spirals increasingly out of control – to the point where she has become estranged from them by the end. If anyone deserved to win an award for this movie I think it should’ve been Lesley Manville for her performance as Mary.
What I love about this movie and what I love about Mike Leigh’s movies in general is his sense of characterization. The characters are all so well written and acted that it’s very easy to believe that their lives continue on once they leave the frame. It’s also easy to believe in, and fun to speculate about, their pasts. The characters make references to things that happened years earlier and to other characters who we never see and, even if I don’t understand all of those references, I know that Leigh and the actors know these characters’ backstories inside and out. As a viewer that makes me feel like I’m in good hands.
What do you make of the relationship between Mary and Joe, the twenty-something son of Tom and Gerri?
JM: First I’d like to address what you mentioned about the characters referring to the past, and I also completely buy into and go along with their memory recollections. This makes me think of one of my major criticisms of the movie The Last Rites of Joe May. When we are introduced to Dennis Farina’s character, Joe May, we are asked as an audience to accept that Joe was some sort of criminal and tough guy, but when I watched how his character acted in the present, I didn’t buy it at all. You can’t just expect your audience to believe whatever you present to them if it’s not done convincingly, but Leigh does it perfectly. I feel like I am part of the family.
To answer your question about Mary and young Joe’s relationship, I think that it is very sad on Mary’s part. We learn later in the film that Mary is like an aunt to Joe and when Joe was only in grade school, Mary was already an adult. When Joe is an adult, Mary hits on him, making Mary an extremely pathetic character. She is grasping at any chance to have a life with this family and essentially be part of the family, and she’ll do it by any means possible. This awkward attempt at flirtation on Mary’s part also presents Joe, like his parents, as a mature and empathetic character. Instead of being creeped out by Mary or indulging in any sort of sexual escapade with her, he shows her kindness by not making a big thing out of it. I don’t know if I totally agree with you that Mary could be the main character because I feel that it is more of an ensemble cast. Maybe though, I just liked Tom and Gerri’s characters and their relationship to each other and their friends so much that I have blinders on only for them when I watch the film.
Besides Mary, what do you think of Tom and Gerri’s other friends and family and their relationships to them?
MGS: Good point of contrast with Joe May.
I think that Ken is also a fascinating character. I get the sense that he and Tom probably started out in a similar place when they were young men but that, over the years, Ken has somehow made bad decisions that have led to him becoming bitter, out of shape, alcoholic and alone. Tom of course tries to help him in the way that old friends do, which leads to some of the film’s most painful moments. I think Leigh suggests that Ken and Mary could hypothetically have a relationship and help each other out; Ken clearly wants it but Mary seems to have unrealistic ideas about what her long-term relationship prospects are.
I also really like the character of Ronnie, Tom’s taciturn brother. I love the way he’s introduced only in the final section; as you know, the film charts a year in the life of its characters and is split up into chapters that correspond to the four seasons, each of which has its own distinct visual style. It seems like introducing the emotionally damaged Ronnie after the death of his wife (unseen by the audience) completely justifies the desaturated color palette of this “Winter chapter.” Obviously, this is a very somber part of the movie but I also think there’s a wonderful, deadpan humor to some of the exchanges between Ronnie and Mary. What did you make of their interactions?
JM: First of all, I completely agree with the winter section corresponding to the death of Ronnie’s wife! I felt like that part was so sad and mournful, and thinking back the lighting and weather mirrored that.
Admittedly, I didn’t really know what to think of the relationship between Mary and Ronnie. I felt that Mary, yet again, was attempting to cling to a member of the Tom/Gerri family and will flirt with whomever will be her key to that world. As for his interest in her, the connection lies in loneliness, companionship and the social act of smoking cigarettes. I tried to read more into it, as if maybe they’d end up together, but overall I think that I was romanticizing it.
MGS: I feel like there’s zero chance that those two could end up together but I have to admire Mary’s manic, indomitable persistence. One of my favorite moments is when she asks him about The Beatles and he replies that he’s an Elvis man. Then she sings a line from “All Shook Up”!
I’d like to conclude my thoughts by saying that I think Another Year is a great title for this film. It reminds us that what we’re watching is a slice of life; I feel like Leigh and his estimable cast show us the high and low points of one year in the life of these characters but that there could have been many similar movies made about the same characters in any of the other years of their lives. This is one of the ways in which it reminds me of the work of one of my favorite directors, Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu. Also Ozu-like is how Leigh manages to examine family ties in a way that feels simultaneously culturally specific and universal.
It’s well known that Leigh’s screenplays evolve out of improvisational workshops with his actors and I feel like he has perfected that process over the decades. To borrow a phrase from an old beer commercial, I think it allows his movies to reach a place, in terms of character development, that the other movies can’t. So that is why I think Another Year is a very special film. Any final thoughts you’d like to add?
JM: I’ve never seen any of the director’s other films, but this one definitely piques my interest to explore further. There is something so intriguing about his characters that when I finished watching the film, I felt like I was closing a really great book. I was sad that it was over, and also that I wouldn’t be a part of their lives anymore.
Another Year is currently available in a splendid blu-ray/dvd combo pack from Sony Pictures.