Mike Leigh’s Another Year plays this evening and tomorrow at the 48th New York Film Festival. Sony Classics will release the film here on December 29.
In American films, characters don’t work for the government unless they’re spies, but Mike Leigh’s films are full of teachers and caseworkers. Developed through a long process of group improv with his frequent on-screen collaborators, who have a say in decorating their characters’ houses, Leigh’s films, as many have observed, are about the collective, communal spirit, whether present (Happy-Go-Lucky uplifting attitudes and a nurturing education system), absent (Naked‘s many tragic loners, none of whom seem to connect amid the teeming humanity) or somewhere in between (Vera Drake‘s titular postwar abortionist, who steps in to “help girls in trouble” when the state won’t). In Another Year, Tom and Gerri, the aging marrieds played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are a geological engineer currently planning an improvement to the London sewer system, and a counselor at the National Health Service. At home, they’re gardeners, tending to an allotment at the community garden, and, like Happy-Go-Lucky‘s Poppy, they’re talky, giggly, performative personalities (the fine Broadbent makes an at times mutely supportive, at times acerbicly protective spouse), attentive to the mood of the room and the feelings of the people around them.
Their emotional green thumbs make them an anchor for the uncoupled people around them—notably Gerri’s unlucky-in-love co-worker Mary, played by Lesley Manville as the battleground of a raging war between self-centeredness and self-awareness, in a series of age-inappropriate outfits—just as it anchors the film: Another Year‘s four-seasons structure gives it a cyclical, inexorable sense of time not so different from Le Quattro Volte‘s, actually.
Another Year has been described as “schematic,” but all films are, to a greater or lesser degree—true, the film, which its recurrent shots of a late-middle-aged couple lovingly tending to the soil, is straightforward about its themes, but it’s multilayered enough, with supporting characters dropping in and out to play new variations on people who need people or care for them, that its lack of subtlety should be confused for a lack of sophistication. A more valid complaint would be to say that Leigh does sometimes direct the film in a schematic manner, cutting from domestic bliss to reaction shots of Manville or Peter Wight, as Tom and Ger’s depressed, boisterous old school friend Ken, to make a clear delineation between the rooted and the uprooted. (And I can’t decide whether a late sequence, set in apartment of an elderly relative so withered and bereaved that his wallpaper is actually soot gray—who has ever lived in rooms with actually gray walls?—is overliteral or a stylized curveball.) But what carries through here is Leigh and his collaborators’ belief in the beautiful necessity of human relations, couched with a very human a tonal register that encompasses everything from domestic bliss to mild techtiness to awkward comedy to a sense, present in wistful conversations about past or deferred holidays, of our too-brief span in the sun.