Another Year, directed by Mike Leigh

A gentle pantomine, where nothing much happens, to arguably profound effect? Must be another Mike Leigh film!

Submitted by Tom Jennings on January 30, 2011

A Sad Old Year. Film review – Tom Jennings
Leigh’s latest slice of everyday monotony revisits petit-bourgeois manners and mores with even slimmer narrative dynamism than usual. Division into four leisurely snapshots starting with spring and ending in winter disguises Another Year’s apparent lack of ambition, evoking the meaning of ‘a good life’ without notably distracting dramatic contrivances. However, the seasonal motif turns out to symbolise not just ageing and the passage of time, but moral connotations of ‘reaping what you sow’ – materially in the fruit and veg harvested on their allotment by contented professional spouses nearing retirement, and metaphorically in nourishing an assortment of family and friends who bear considerable degrees of responsibility for the various axes they grind. Furthermore, the only real bugbears for civil engineer Tom and medical counsellor Gerri are everyone else’s aforementioned miseries – particularly her infuriating work colleague Mary – testing patience but reliably flavouring their otherwise colourless existence.
The couple conceivably condense the complacency of upwardly-mobile 1960s graduates reaching relative comfort, contrasting the misfortunes of those who’ve found no lasting fulfilment. Their rather gormless son Joe’s new girlfriend – proud of her proletarian parents – echoes this trajectory, but in the current climate her sunny disposition (like Poppy’s in Happy-Go-Lucky; reviewed in Freedom, 16th August 2008) functions more as psychological defence than the optimism of previous generations for whom the world seemed like their oyster. So sundry variants of respectable working-class failure allow Tom and Gerri (the names now intelligibly referencing the cartoon equivalents’ tragicomic co-dependence) to measure lifecycle satisfaction while, ever so subtly, without explicitly acknowledging it, they relentlessly judge and punish them as reminders of their luck rather than judgement. Thus their hospitality, bonhomie and kindheartedness also harbour charitable condescension concealing hostility – unerringly meted out to recalcitrant clients, Tom’s bereaved brother and inadequate old college friend, and, most iconically, Mary’s pathetic self-centred neurotic.
Meanwhile collusion in the ballet of neediness and caring prevents them from meaningfully grasping the continuing disasters of the status quo – which their suburban bubble insulates them from while also occasioning their nominal vocations (Tom testing the ground under modern society’s infrastructure; Gerri dispensing pop-psychology blandishments to its deeply suffering; Joe’s earnest offensiveness with its outcasts). Meticulous attention to script detail accompanies Leigh’s legendary lengthy improvisation with actors – coaxing marvellous performances through attenuating individual verbal, paraverbal and nonverbal characterisations into thoroughly convincing cardboard cutouts. These magnificently capture the minutiae of mundane interpersonality, but also here erase ambiguity and any surprising complexity. Forcing a collective spectrum’s shades into stark blacks and whites flattens the film’s philosophically fascinating paradox of boring happiness – but, in effect, this is also liberal democracy’s meritocratic impasse as well as an inevitable end-point of the director’s naturalistic determinism. No wonder he sees Another Year as deeply personal (disdainful predictions that the critics would be “unable to talk [intelligently] about it” being largely confirmed) – not written in a country churchyard, but nonetheless representing a dark gray elegy to the vanishing hopes of his cohort’s postwar progressivism.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 71, No. 24, December 2010.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: