Monday, 1 November 2010

Review: Another Year (2010)


As much as I love and admire a great deal of the work of Mike Leigh there are aspects of his films that can generate a special kind of irritation. Though adored in some quarters, Leigh’s last work, Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), appeared to grate on the nerves of a substantial number of viewers, particularly those who found Sally Hawkins’s irrepressible Poppy to be more annoyance than inspiration. Despite contrived and problematic moments (the unconvincing scene between Poppy and the tramp; the poorly executed subplot involving the abused boy at school), Happy-Go-Lucky struck me as a fresh and engaging addition to Leigh’s canon, with superb performances from Hawkins and Eddie Marsan at its centre and well-drawn supporting characters filling out the background. I certainly found it to be a much more insightful and enjoyable experience than the director’s new film, Another Year, which is out this Friday and appears to be receiving pretty much universal acclaim. I saw Another Year at the London Film Festival a couple of weeks ago and it’s taken me quite a while to process how one of my most anticipated films at the LFF - and one that many people are celebrating as a Leigh masterpiece - ended up being one of the Festival’s biggest disappointments for me. This rather lengthy review attempts to assess why.

Opening in Spring, Another Year presents episodes from twelve months in the life of a thoroughly contented London couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geologist, and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a therapist, and their circle of family and friends. Principal among these are their son Joe (Oliver Maltman), Tom’s lonely chum (Peter Wight), Gerri’s work colleague Mary (Lesley Manville), and Tom’s brother (David Bradley). Over this year, Tom and Gerri work on their allotment, meet Joe’s new girlfriend, and go north for a family funeral. But the movie’s focal point gradually becomes the emotional unravelling of Mary, counter-pointed with the happiness and stability of the couple.

A problem with Leigh’s weaker films is that they can be too transparent in their attitude towards their own characters, too doctrinaire in guiding the audience’s perceptions as to who we’re meant to admire, pity, or what have you. (His best films, in contrast, work to challenge and subvert such pre-judgements.) This kind of obviousness proved to be one of my barriers to enjoying Another Year. Like some of Leigh’s earlier work, it’s a film that doesn’t allow the audience enough space for interpretation. Gerri and Tom are made such beacons of good-humour and tolerance that there’s no doubt about how we’re meant to respond to them, and the contrast set up between their happiness on the one hand and their friends’ miserable singleness on the other comes off as far too stark. Tom and Gerri (even the cuteness of the naming makes you wince; or does it hint at conflicts that never made it onto the screen?) are the latest in a line of sentimentalised couples in Leigh’s cinema and the director’s ringing endorsement of their wonderfulness couldn’t be clearer. (We observe their affection but none of the tensions - overt or underlying - of a long-married couple. Nothing, apart from their sad and sometimes disruptive single friends, is shown to ruffle their composure.) At the  Q&A that followed the screening that I attended, another audience member expressed the opinion that the pair might be viewed as “insufferably bourgeois.” Leigh reacted with incredulity to this suggestion, but I think that’s just how some viewers might respond to Tom and Gerri, with their full fridge, Edenic allotment, affectionate repartee, bedtime snuggles, and warm hugs for those less fortunate than they. If you don’t find the pair as delightful as they’re intended to be, you may have problems with the ways in which Another Year develops.

Performance is a central pleasure of Mike Leigh movies, and that’s the case in Another Year - but only up to a point. While it’s exciting, even moving, to see a cast so full of Leigh veterans in one film - in addition to the principals there’s a cameo for Imelda Staunton, a killer of an appearance by Martin Savage and a (too minor) role for Phil Davis - I’d argue that they’ve done better, subtler work elsewhere. Manville is a superb actress whose performances for Leigh in Topsy-Turvy (1999) and the underrated All or Nothing (2002) are among my favourites of all time. (I even cherish her brief appearance as the social worker in Secrets and Lies [1996].) But though she hits some very affecting notes here (especially in a fine, long late sequence that she shares with the great David Bradley, and that’s worth the price of admission on its own), a lot of what she does in Another Year seems over-stressed to me. (I admit that my response may have been affected by the reaction of the audience at the LFF screening who shrieked with laughter at almost her every utterance.) Hapless, manless, childless Mary (and childless women often seem to pose a problem in Leigh’s cinema), with her drunken binges, her bad driving, her insecurity about her age and refrain of “It’s not fair!”, follows a familiar Leigh trajectory from figure-of-fun to object-of-pity. The character hasn’t been in the film for five minutes before she starts wittering about her singleness; her humiliation is complete by the end of her second scene in which she’s eyeing a man in a bar before discovering that he already has a date; an over-familiar scenario if ever there was one. She’s a direct descendant of the similarly intrusive, needy and clingy Gloria (Brenda Blethyn) in Leigh’s TV film Grown Ups (1980) and a few Blethyn-isms creep into Manville’s characterisation, it must be said. Close-ups capturing every twitch of Mary’s envy, defensiveness and insecurity rob the performance of nuance in some scenes. I found myself wishing that the camera would just back off and allow us to intuit the character’s emotions instead of constantly signposting them. I came to feel the same about the other actors at times too. Broadbent’s jovial mateyness, Sheen’s even-voiced serenity, Wight’s desperate food-guzzling, Bradley’s terseness - they all begin to seem a bit overdone. The characters that Leigh and the actors have worked up here are vivid creations, as ever, and yet I wasn‘t always convinced by them, somehow.

The seasonal structure of the film has lead to comparisons with Ozu and Rohmer, and Another Year’s concern with coupledom, the challenges of change, ageing, caring, and family dynamics also makes that assessment apt. (Dick Pope’s cinematography captures the seasonal changes with unobtrusive elegance, though the setting of the funeral in the "Winter" section seems another over-obvious touch.) But the schematism and obviousness of Another Year make it seem far removed from these directors' best work. Gary Yershon's score ladles on the wistfulness and, when in doubt, Leigh has the characters state the themes. “Change is frightening, isn’t it?” muses Sheen in her opening encounter with Staunton. Later, when sympathising with Mary, she notes “Life isn’t always kind, is it?” Never has a therapist seemed more reliant upon clichés and homilies but it gradually becomes apparent that Gerri’s every remark is meant to have the weight of truth. A scene that exemplifies this tendency is the one in which Joe’s girlfriend, Katie, is introduced to the couple. Played by Karina Fernandez (she was the highly-strung flamenco dance tutor in Happy-Go-Lucky), the character comes off as a chirpy, endlessly bantering nightmare, a Poppy redux. But when Gerri announces that “She’s lovely” there’s meant to be no doubt at all about the accuracy of the judgment. Instead the scene becomes about the pitifulness of Mary’s infatuation with Joe and marks another predictable step in the character’s downward spiral.

I’d love to be able to be more enthusiastic about this movie. Leigh can be a wonderful director and his best films have put aspects of British life on screen in recognisable, funny and honest ways. There are fleeting moments of acute observation in Another Year, but the movie represents one of the few times that I think Leigh’s method might have misfired: the film doesn’t develop in enough interesting directions. Joe agreeing to date Mary might have given the proceedings the kick they needed and shaken the film (and Tom and Gerri) out of their complacency. But such a development would have taken Another Year in a crazier, less banal direction than Leigh seems prepared to go this time around. The film’s limited, conventional and even conservative approach to issues of human fulfilment is unappealing, and seems in contrast to the expansiveness, the richness and texture, of the director’s finest work. (Compare the suggestiveness and discretion of the emotional content of Claire Denis’s Ozu riff, 35 Shots of Rum [2008], with the obviousness of much of what’s on display here and the movie’s shortcomings become all the clearer.) A significant disappointment for me, then, but I look forward to reading other bloggers’ responses to Another Year.


  1. it will be bloody ages for me to see this......great review by the way alex

    I like Leigh, but I do find his movies just a little exhausting at times.

    Performance led......for sure

    but tiring

  2. Thanks, John. I'll be interested to hear your views on this. It shouldn't be that long before it arrives in your neck of the woods: it's due out on Friday and seems to be getting quite a wide distribution. A rather lengthy review, this, but I wanted to be very specific about why this turned out to be one of Leigh's lesser works for me.

  3. Finally,an objective review

  4. There haven't been many dissenters, have there? I'm surprised to hear the film being continually described as "subtle." The phrase "as a sledgehammer" comes to mind...

  5. Good review Alex, I share your sentiment - this film was disappointing, and the amazing amount exceptional reviews its receiving is really baffling...I wonder would this be the case had it been an unknown director? Or are audiences and reviewers just being 'politically correct'? The characters are more like archetypes than three dimensional personalities. The incessant laughter from the audience was also hard to ignore! The humour is obvious and cringe-worthy at times. Its a pity Leigh couldn't have fleshed out his characters a bit more...and a plot for that matter.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Jen! It's reassuring to hear that a few other people feel that way. I'm totally baffled by the amount of praise the film is getting as well - especially when other, vastly superior Leigh movies have been (comparatively) overlooked by the press.

  7. I agree with and understand many of your criticisms here, especially regarding the obviousness that often creeps into ANOTHER YEAR. I think some of it is probably intentional on Mike Leigh's part. I saw the film last night and thought about it for much of today. At this point I'd say that I was as moved by ANOTHER YEAR as I've been by his other films, maybe since it speaks to me fairly personally, even too personally at times.

    The seasonal, four-act structure is theatrical not just in its form, but in its introduction of one painfully lonely person as the emotional focus of each segment of the film, people who are seemingly beyond salvage: the characters played by Staunton, Wight, Savage, and Manville. (Bradley's character is certainly among the lonely, but it's his son who drives the intensity of the funeral scene.) Of course, Manville's Mary unites the four sections of the film, but not until she hits rock bottom in the final scene do we fully comprehend what a frenetic act her chirpy disposition has been up to that point in the story.

    I admired, as I usually do, Leigh's gutsiness in "going there" with the dramatic skill that he and his actors demonstrate. How do you make a film or tell an engaging story about people whom nobody wants to be around? I've sometimes had the distraction of such people in my life, and I've also sometimes been that person myself. Eddie Marsan's tortured (and torturous) driving instructor in HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is one of Leigh's extreme examples. How do we appropriately respond to such people in what we hope will be a civil society? As Bradley's character helplessly remarks about his son's relentless bursts of unresolved anger: "I don't know what to do." The film's lingering, silent final shot of Mary at Tom and Gerri's dinner table suggests that she may be in the same situation. Sadly, people whom others find intolerable learn to separate themselves as a method of survival, though it may make long-term survival more difficult. (Daniel Day Lewis's character Daniel Plainview in THERE WILL BE BLOOD comes to mind as another recent extreme example.)

    I think there are many moments in Mike Leigh's films that aren't meant to be entirely convincing. As New York Times critic A. O. Scott wrote about the late John Hughes's '80s teen dramatic comedies, "his films are fables, not documentaries," "fairy tales rendered from experience, rather than...blunt records of life." Poppy's otherworldly encounter with the homeless man in HAPPY-GO-LUCKY worked for me because I didn't think it was supposed to be realistic but more dreamlike, a sort of magical realism perhaps. For me, it's fine for such a moment in a Mike Leigh film to function symbolically, both for the audience and for the characters. Tom and Gerri as the central couple and emotional "glue" in ANOTHER YEAR didn't annoy me, because I saw their role as similarly functional, secondary to the abrupt interruptions of their unhappy friends and relatives (though I do think we see some brief, subtle moments of realistic discontent in Broadbent's and Sheen's performances, too).

    If I were living in Great Britain, and especially if I'd lived there all my life, I'm sure it would be more difficult for me to view Leigh's films this way. They tend to present themselves as fairly realistic on the surface, which is probably confirmed by the audience's continual laughter at Mary's every quirk when you saw the movie in the cinema. A British audience recognizes these characters and relates to their idiosyncrasies. I recognize them as well, if not quite as immediately. (Laughter was limited amongst the 25 or so filmgoers in my American viewing audience at the cinema last night.) I've always understood Mike Leigh's central characters as deep caricatures, and only through the depth of his caricatures is some kind of truth achieved.

  8. Thanks so much, Jason, for sharing your thoughts on ANOTHER YEAR.

    I think you’re quite right to problematise Leigh’s status as a “realist” filmmaker: another example that comes to mind is CAREER GIRLS, in which the protagonists just happen to bump into everyone significant from their past over one day or weekend! I like Pauline Kael’s comment that he sometimes “uses absurdism to modernize realism” and I think she’s correct in implying that this is a distinctive but at times a problematic and jarring aspect of his cinema. There are strongly theatrical elements in his work, and I think that may be why TOPSY-TURVY is perhaps his greatest film for me; it allows him to really indulge that side. I also love your description of his characters as deep caricatures. I’d say, though, that some go considerably deeper than others. The issue of caricature in Leigh has always been a contentious one, with some people finding great truth in his portraits and others accusing him of being condescending and patronising, and inviting the viewer to feel superior to a character for their lack of “taste” or competence.

    I’ve had both reactions to his films over the years, and listening to the laughter at ANOTHER YEAR some doubts about his approach started to surface again. There’s certainly none of the embarrassingly crude caricature of, say, HIGH HOPES in the new film, but it’s a very fine line for me with Leigh, and, like some of his earlier work, ANOTHER YEAR crossed it. Ultimately, it wasn’t so much a question of caricature here, though. Rather, my main problem was that I found the film didn’t allow me enough interpretive space and was rather pushy in directing my response towards its characters. (I know some viewers have said that they kept changing their minds about the protagonists, but I came to feel that once the saintly Gerri had pronounced her opinion on another character or a situation then that’s the one we were supposed to share.) The contrast between the happily married on the one hand and the sadly single on the other seemed too stark, and I felt rather uncomfortable at being invited to laugh at Mary’s ineptitude for the first half of the film and then to pity her at the end. The revelation of the sorrow beneath the chirpiness struck me as rather glib. And, across his body of work, I do think there are problems with the way in which he so frequently presents single - and, more particularly, childless - women as unhappy, unfulfilled or neurotic in some way. I wonder why, in publicity material, he felt it necessary to comment, of Mary: “Her life does seem empty when compared to the married pair but there’s no malice intended.” Well, I’m not so sure, quite frankly.

    The lingering final shot emphasising Mary’s disconnection from the discussion at the dinner table certainly does seem intended to suggest that she may be beyond salvage, in the film‘s terms. But I confess that I for one was rather glad when we faded out on that smug and not-terribly-interesting conversation at the end. (Gerri and Tom reminiscing about their travels, if I remember rightly?)

    I admire Leigh so much and think that he’s among the best filmmakers this country has ever produced: I can watch TOPSY-TURVY and SECRETS & LIES and ALL OR NOTHING and VERA DRAKE over and over. On a first viewing ANOTHER YEAR didn’t seem to me to have anything like the richness or the complexity of those films, but I do look forward to revisiting the film at some stage and seeing if these impressions hold.

    Thanks again for the comments!

  9. Yes, this film is definitely more manipulative than Leigh's others. That was my initial response to it on Twitter. I suppose I don't mind being emotionally manipulated a bit where films are concerned, though I understand why most people dislike it and prefer their interpretive space. And you're right that some of Leigh's caricatures go deeper than others. Pauline Kael's comment is perceptive and feels quite right to me, too. Thanks for responding to my attempt at the longest blog comment in history! Fun to exchange thoughts about the movie.

  10. Good review, and interesting thread!

    "in which he so frequently presents single - and, more particularly, childless - women as unhappy, unfulfilled or neurotic" good observation, hadn't thopught of that, perhaps Mike Leigh is on to something though? but I don't think he is ruling out women can be happy and single and childless.

    I agree with you're review to a certain extent that Another Year could contain more conflict between Tom and Gerri, I try and look at this in my review as a tacit examination of their marriage, should you be interested. I loved Another Year, by the way.

  11. Thanks; I very much enjoyed your review of ANOTHER YEAR. The film is out on DVD here now so I plan to revisit it soon. I may even write a "second viewing" review... probably won't be quite as lengthy as this one, though. :)

  12. Just seen it. I found Tom and Gerri smug and unbearable. I think there are different ways to view the film though and that's it real charm. Good review, though.

  13. Re-reading your comments here months later now, it struck me that perhaps it's because they're neurotic and unhappy that some of Leigh's single female characters wind up single and childless, and not the other way around. But I completely agree with you about how problematic that trend or suggestion can be in his films overall. Heteronormative ease that's represented in any mainstream film usually seems to be a concession to the supposed "majority" of its cinematic audience, and it's a predilection that I absolutely loathe. Since Mike Leigh is a genius, however, I suppose I'll forgive him for employing it occasionally and fleetingly.

  14. It's been awhile since I saw Another Year in theatres, but I agree with Theatre Studies: I too "found Tom and Gerri smug and unbearable." I took this to be intentional in their characterization -- they posit themselves as the "perfect couple," but befriend lost and lonely people to concurrently help and laugh at, and so are not any "better" human beings than these friends.

    I also remember an offhand comment in the first pub scene about Tom and Gerri having a daughter, but she is never mentioned again in the movie -- so on the surface they seem like the perfect parents, but delve deeper and they have disowned one of their children, and are actually as messed up as anyone.

    (If this exchange between Mary and Gerri -- during which Mary asks Gerri about her daughter, and Gerri brushes off the comment -- actually happened. I nor my friend with whom I attended the film could remember.)

    I found your review quite insightful, and maybe I'm just convincing myself of this as a Leigh fan, but I didn't find the characters caricatures as you did.