Sunday, 28 November 2010

Review: Propeller's Richard III (Yvonne Arnaud Theatre; & touring)

Having previously presented the Henry VI plays in a slaughterhouse (as Rose Rage) and set their superb Merchant of Venice in a prison, Ed Hall’s consistently brilliant all-male Shakespeare company Propeller return with a production of Richard III that approaches the play as a species of deranged Victorian medical drama. On a set (by Michael Pavelka) that variously evokes mental hospital, torture chamber, mortuary and morgue, a sinister masked Chorus - orderlies by way of Halloween’s Michael Myers - hum and chant, clutch clubs and haul body bags, and generally do Richard’s murderous bidding, singing merry ditties when they’re through.

It’s a strange, surprising ambience that’s created, to be sure. But, as often with Propeller, conceits that in theory sound like the height of gimmickry prove dynamic and revelatory in practice. Richard III has never been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays but as staged here - with judicious cuts and creative additions to the text by Hall and co-adapter Roger Warren - the play made more dramatic and thematic sense than ever before. I was grateful to have the chance to see the production at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre last week; the only disappointment was that the other show that the company are presenting this season (The Comedy of Errors) wasn’t staged at this venue too, and doesn’t open until the group hit Girona next week.

Capable of evoking both mental state and nation state, Hall’s eccentric production brilliantly catches the play’s political seriousness and its ghoulish comedy. Indeed, the line between funny and scary is deliciously, sometimes deliriously blurred here. Familiar scenes emerge new minted, from the wooing of Lady Anne through to a thrillingly staged Eve-of-Bosworth nightmare, in which Richard’s victims emerge from their body bags to curse their killer and bless Richmond. The murder scenes (and Hall even has the temerity to up the play’s body count) are staged explicitly with outrageous, Theatre of Blood-esque bravura and involve an astonishing arsenal of instruments from knives to chainsaws, drills and scythes, not to mention a spot of finger-biting. (The production sometimes suggests Shakespeare via Saw; taking our seats we were warned that the front row was a potential “splash zone”.) But part of what’s so exciting about Propeller’s approach is their willingness to draw from a diverse pool of influences; this Richard merges Latin mass, carols and rap, puppetry and music hall, Victorian Gothic and contemporary torture porn. And, in Hall’s capable hands, it all makes perfect sense.

As always, the ensemble work brilliantly together as a unit, while also essaying vivid individual characterisations. Standouts include John Dougall's moving Clarence, Sam Swainsbury and Richard Frame as his murderers (this pair also prove expert puppeteers in their other roles as the Princes destined for the Tower) and Robert Hands who also does double duty, as an ailing Edward IV and a white-suited, cross-clutching Richmond. The women’s roles are inhabited with customary skill, from Jon Trenchard’s Lady Anne to Tony Bell’s marvellously imposing Queen Margaret, imperious reminder of Yorkist crimes. The statuesque Dominic Tighe commands the attention as Queen Elizabeth, a figure of perpetual mourning who nonetheless proves to be Richard’s match in cunning. (In one of the production’s many witty touches, the women’s black dresses evoke the body bags that litter the stage.) Dugald Bruce-Lockhart presents Sir Richard Ratcliffe as creepily prim, checking his watch as bodies fall, while Wayne Cater offers a truly bizarre (lineless) incarnation of the murderer Tyrrell, emerging like some devil-doll out of the depths of Richard’s disordered psyche.  And then of course there’s Richard Clothier’s mercurial Richard himself, clad in black, lower leg braced, at once the “bottled spider” of Queen Margaret’s description and a plausibly charming, seductive fellow; he suggests an ageing matinee idol at times. It’s a superb performance, witty and shrewd, and the actor hits some truly disturbing notes in the play’s final scenes.

In sum, this exhilarating, rich and daring production is another terrific achievement by Propeller. As usual, the company are embarking on an international tour (details here). Do catch them if you possibly can.

Review: And Furthermore (2010) by Judi Dench

As any trip to a book-store these days will remind you, ’tis the season of the Ghastly Celeb Autobiography. There are always a few exceptions, though, and amidst the chaff, I found it hard to resist a look at Judi Dench’s memoir And Furthermore, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. The Great Dame may be sharing shelf space with the likes of Cheryl Cole, Gok Wan, Chris Evans and Katie Price at present but she has one significant advantage over most of these guys: a career that’s actually worth writing about. Dench’s life has already been the subject of a 1998 biography by John Miller, who’s also overseen the publication of both the illustrated volume Judi Dench: Scenes From My Life and the embarrassingly titled but enjoyable and revealing exercise in "Dench-olatry" Darling Judi: A Celebration of Judi Dench, which collected the reflections and reminiscences of nineteen of her colleagues. Miller’s finger-prints are on And Furthermore as well, meaning that there’s much in the new book that’s familiar from those earlier volumes, a lot of repeated jokes and observations and anecdotes. (A personal favourite: Dench “drying” on the opening night of Filumena and replacing the Italian place-names she was supposed to be declaiming with the names of varieties of pasta.)

The new book’s value lies in some of Dench’s commentary on her most recent work, from the unloved production of Madame de Sade (2009) and the mis-conceived musical Nine (2009) to the successful Cranford series. (The volume is so up-to-date that it even includes some brief reflections on the Stephen Sondheim Prom at which she sang “Send In The Clowns” just this past July.) Her account of working on Sally Potter’s great, under-seen Rage (2009) is a bit brief, but there are some terrific reflections on the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which she starred as Titania earlier this year.

What’s especially heartening is the love and enthusiasm that Dench still expresses for her profession, and her commitment not only “to continue working right to the end” but to take on as many fresh challenges as possible. “I want to do something that is much more unlikely for me, more daring,” she confesses. “And if I am going to put my energy into a play, then I will do something I haven’t tackled before.”

And Furthermore is written in a brisk and unpretentious style. It won’t satisfy those hoping for sensational revelations: Dench tends to keep the focus on her work throughout, even in the chapter that deals with the death of Michael Williams. Like most of these endeavours, the book often skims the surface and doesn’t ever really get to grips with the depths of the actress’s artistry. Interestingly, though, my favourite passage in the book has Dench challenge the idea that that’s a possible or a desirable aim. Musing on the stresses of film promotion, she offers the following, rather prickly defence of the mystery of her craft:

“[In interviews] you have to sit and answer questions about what you think of the part, why you wanted to play the part, and I think that’s none of the public’s business. … Why should the public know everything? The joy of theatre is not really going and knowing that somebody had a terrible difficulty playing this part, or why they did it; it is to go and be told a story, the author’s story, through the best means possible. In any case, I never know why I’ve done something, it’s for lots of reasons. I want to keep a quiet portion inside that is my own business and not anybody else’s.”

Such scattered subversive observations make And Furthermore a worthwhile reading experience for Dench-olators.

Dench discusses the book at a Platform at the National Theatre on 9th December.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Review: The Glass Menagerie (Young Vic)

Tennessee Williams would go on to write greater, more complex and profound plays than The Glass Menagerie (1944), his first big Broadway success. And yet there’s something about this early work that goes straight to the heart. With its thinly-veiled autobiographical elements, sometimes self-conscious poetic flourishes and flirtations with experimentation, The Glass Menagerie feels like the work of a playwright just on the cusp of finding his voice. Possessed of a slightness and quaintness that Williams’s later work would tend to eschew, it’s an almost-great play and that almost-greatness is, I think, part of what makes the piece so touching and endearing. Theatre producers would seem to agree about the play’s appeal given the amount of times that it’s been revived in the last few years. 2008 saw Brenda Blethyn tackling the role of Amanda in a touring production directed by Braham Murray that apparently emphasised the play’s comedy. The previous year saw the great Jessica Lange take on the role in a magnificent production in London’s West End directed by Rupert Goold that brought out the melancholy, lyricism and poignancy of the piece. With stunning work from Lange, Amanda Hale as Laura and Mark Umbers as Jim, the Gentleman Caller, it’s one of my favourite productions of all time.

Having loved Goold’s version so much I was somewhat trepidacious about seeing Joe Hill-Gibbins’s production of the play, which opens next Wednesday at the Young Vic and is currently in previews. But since I find it hard to resist a Williams fix, especially one that has such a strong cast (Deborah Findlay, Sinéad Matthews, Leo Bill and Kyle Soller) attached to it, I decided to give The Glass Menagerie another go. I couldn’t be happier that I did. Hill-Gibbins’s production doesn’t quite displace Goold’s in my affections but it’s undoubtedly a compelling and moving account of this most personal and elegiac of plays. The following remarks were written after the third preview of the play on 13th November.

The protagonists of The Glass Menagerie are the Wingfield family: mother Amanda, daughter Laura and son Tom, a budding poet and frustrated shoe-factory hand whose direct-to-audience reminiscences structure the piece. Deserted by the children’s father - “a telephone man who fell in love with long-distances” - the family’s hand-to-mouth existence contrasts sharply with Amanda’s recollections of her past in Blue Mountain, Mississippi, a history that she furiously romanticises as she recalls the succession of “gentleman callers” who paid her visits. Like several of Williams’s female protagonists, conditioned to fear a future as “unmarried women … barely tolerated … and eating the crust of humility all their life,” Amanda sees a man as the key to the family’s hopes, and encourages Tom to bring home a work colleague, Jim, as a suitor for Laura. Jim’s visit provides the dramatic climax to the play; it's a classic scene in which the dreamy, disabled Laura - who's more at ease when playing with the glass animals in her collection than when engaging in human contact - is momentarily awakened out of her reveries, only to have her hopes cruelly shattered.

The talented Hill-Gibbins (who scored a big hit at the YV earlier this year with his revival of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane) gives the play a tasteful, sensitive but not overly reverential staging here. Though it transforms the Young Vic in a striking way, at first glance Jeremy Herbert’s set looks rather ungainly, with a grim fire-escape surrounding the family’s apartment and a red curtain rising and falling on the action. But the space is fairly well used (though sightlines may be a problem from some seats), and the design - aided by excellent live piano music composed by Dario Marianelli and eloquent lighting by James Farncombe- succeeds in effectively presenting the drama as “a memory” that’s playing out (repeatedly, one feels) in Tom’s head.

But what counts the most in a work as intimate as The Glass Menagerie is the actors’ interplay and the four performances here are memorable and finely detailed across the board. Deborah Findlay is responsible for two of my most cherished stage performances (as Paulina in The Winter’s Tale and Mother Clap in Mark Ravenhill’s Mother Clap’s Molly House at the NT in 2001) and I was excited and curious to see her take on her first Williams heroine. It’s easy to reduce the oppressive Amanda to a monster figure - an over-bearing Mommy Dearest - and Findlay is excessively brassy at times; hollering “Rise and shine!” at Tom she sounds more like a sergeant major than a Southern belle. But if the performance lacks the inventive lyricism that Lange brought to the role, Findlay still finds plenty of variety in the character: humour, anger, flirtatiousness, as well as a clear-eyed practical streak that offsets Amanda’s silliness and bullying interference in her children’s lives. “There is much to admire in Amanda,” Williams insisted, “as much to love and pity as there is to laugh at,” and the actress succeeds in unearthing some of those grace notes throughout. Findlay is at her funniest when Amanda is swinging into fluttery, gracious-hostess overdrive, but she gives the character dignity too. This is an Amanda who has clearly learnt the hard way that life requires “Spartan endurance.” Findlay’s well-modulated performance shows the toll that Amanda’s behaviour takes on her children, as well as the deep affection and concern that motivates her.

As Tom, Leo Bill expertly conveys the character’s deep frustration and his saving wit (“I’ll rise - but I won’t shine”); he handles the audience-address with great skill and there are lovely, surprising details in the performance: his look of disgust as he watches Amanda schmoozing Jim is prodigious. The always-original Sinéad Matthews makes a superb Laura; her scratchy, emotion-filled voice and jerky movements (never overdone) pierce the defences. Playing one of the first of the misfit-dreamers to whom Williams plays consistently give voice, Matthews endows the character with fragility and an odd resilience, and even her sometimes-wavering American accent seems an eloquent expression of the character’s tentativeness. I never thought I’d see a better account of the candle-lit scene in which Laura connects with Jim than that played by Hale and Umbers in the Goold production. But the sequence is just as powerful and affecting here, and Kyle Soller is absolutely wonderful at revealing both the conceit and the sense of disillusionment lurking under his Gentleman Caller’s easy affability. All four actors show sensitivity to the rhythms of Williams’s dialogue, the gorgeous, robust language that melts the heart: “We have to do all that we can to build ourselves up. In these trying times we live in, all that we have to cling to is - each other…”

What Hill-Gibbins and his team are so good at bringing out is the play’s acute analysis of family dynamics, and the sense of entrapment and desire for escape, love mixed with cruelty and repression, that characterises the Wingfields’s interactions and makes the play one of the most perceptive works ever written on the complexity of parent-child (and sibling) bonds. Full of feeling and insight, this is an excellent production that deserves to be a big success.

The play ran for 2 hours 40 minutes on Saturday night. It’s booking until 1st January. So go!

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Review: Swanlights (2010) by Antony and the Johnsons

I vividly remember first discovering the music of Antony & the Johnsons on a trip from York back to London several years ago. Listening to the band’s first album on repeat during that four hour journey was a spell-binding experience. I found the record funny, disturbing, sexy, surreal, familiar and mysterious all at once. It remains one of my favourite albums of all time, a totally unique and energising melding of torch song, sooul, gospel and cabaret, filtered through the New York avant-garde and crowned by Antony’s endlessly arresting, Nina Simone-meets-Bryan-Ferry vocals. I felt much the same way about the group’s second album, I Am A Bird Now, which went on to win the Mercury Prize in 2005. The momentum and interest generated by that win saw Antony become everyone’s favourite guest vocalist and he appeared (with varying degrees of effectiveness) on albums by artists including Rufus Wainwright, Bjork, Linda Thompson, Marianne Faithfull, and Hercules and Love Affair over the next couple of years. The band didn’t get around to releasing a new album of their own until the beginning of 2009, when The Crying Light appeared.

Despite great moments, The Crying Light never really came together for me. Patchily written and rather precious, lacking the sharper lyrical edges and theatricality of the previous records, the album seemed a step back for the group. (You can read my thoughts on it here.) For this reason, perhaps, I didn’t dash out to buy Swanlights, the group’s new release which has been around for a month or so now. Having finally got around to listening to it, I’m happy to report that, though very far from a complete success, the record at least represents something of a partial return to form.

Containing just 10 tracks (one of which, “Violetta,” is just a few seconds of instrumental noodling that doesn’t really merit an individual listing), Swanlights sticks to the A & the Js format of lean-and-mean, no-fat studio albums. At 45 minutes it's actually the group's longest release yet, but it still feels slight, particularly as a few of the tracks here - the leaden, repetitious first single “Thank You For Your Love,” the sadly doggerel-heavy "The Great White Ocean,” which demonstrates little except that Antony’s songs gain from murky diction - are under par. But what’s good here is very good - atmospheric, well arranged - and I’m especially pleased to hear Antony take a few more vocal risks again after his mostly restrained performances on The Crying Light, moving beyond sombre reflection and rousing himself to anger and elation at various points. From the breathy, appropriately hesitant delivery on the opening “Everything is New” (that builds to fine cries of agony-or-ecstasy as the song progresses) to the gorgeous full-bodiedness of the closing “Christina’s Farm” there are moments of magisterial beauty on this record. The London Symphony Orchestra bring grandeur to the urgent  “Ghost,” while the stunning "Swanlights" finds a double-tracked Antony delivering the album’s most interesting lyrics against a taut, brooding backdrop of electric guitar, piano and strings. “The Spirit Was Gone” must be one of the starkest  most direct confrontations with mortality ever put on record, and though it’s too short Antony’s performance could hardly be bettered, particularly his understated delivery on the refrain “It’s hard to understand.” What you make of the spare "Flétta" will depend on how much you enjoy the sound of Antony and Björk's voices together (and I don’t, really) but the song - written entirely in Icelandic - has its merits, and the roll of Björk's “rs” is quite sublime.

The track I keep returning to most, though, is “Christina’s Farm,” a song that Antony’s performed live over the past couple of years and which I’m delighted to find on a record at last. Haunting, dramatic, a slow-burner, the song delivers the “tender renewal” that its lyrics repeatedly evoke. It’s a superb piece of work, and a great ending to the record. I’d still like to hear more playfulness and exuberance on an Antony & the Johnsons album again - and a dash of humour wouldn’t go amiss, either. But at its best Swanlights cuts deep.

Here’s Antony tackling the title track solo. "Lean /On the Swanlight song."

Monday, 8 November 2010

Le Refuge on DVD

A quick shout-out for the very speedy UK DVD release of François Ozon's Le Refuge (2009); it's out today on Artificial Eye. I spent some time rhapsodising about how great I thought the film was upon its theatrical release in August (review here) so I won't say any more now except that Le Refuge gets my wholehearted recommendation. And that, with end-of-the-year best-of lists now in mind, this one's going to be up there for me.  


Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Review: The Company Man (Orange Tree Theatre)

Photo: Robert Day

“We don’t get these moments back!” cries a character towards the emotional climax of Torben Betts’s uneven but engaging new play The Company Man, which closes this Saturday at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. It’s a line that cuts straight to the heart of the play’s concern with issues of time and choice. Directed by Adam Barnard, The Company Man juxtaposes scenes from the past in the life of a family, the Carmichaels, with scenes set over a weekend in the present, when the clan have gathered together, along with an old friend and neighbour, Jim (Nicholas Lumley), for the first time in years. The father, Bill (Bruce Alexander), is a self-made, working-class man who delights in boasting about the struggles he’s overcome. His wife, Jane (Isla Blair), is a motor neurone disease sufferer who’s confined to a wheelchair and is being cared for by their daughter Cathy (Beatrice Curnew), a nurse. Their son, Richard (Jack Sandle), is a failed musician bitterly resentful towards his father, and his arrival kicks off a weekend in which tensions surface and old wounds are opened. Gradually the flashbacks help us piece together the events that have led these characters to this point.

The set-up sounds familiar enough: there are hints of Ayckbourn throughout (Betts is a Stephen Joseph Theatre alumnus) and a whiff of regurgitated Eugene O’Neill (via Arthur Miller) to the father-son conflicts in the piece. Though the play and production don’t have anything like the consistency of the superb last Orange Tree show, The Thunderbolt, at its best, The Company Man is surprising, insightful and moving. The balance between the protagonists is well achieved and the characters are all drawn in more than one-dimension. Alexander introduces Bill as a rather innocuous, if terminally pedantic, man, a bird-watcher, cricket-lover and classical music aficionado, which makes the character’s sudden explosions into anger all the more disturbing. (I do wish, though, that the play didn't have to be quite so explicit in pinning his temper on his treatment at the hands of a “brutal” father who in turn was traumatised by his experience in World War II etc.) Nicholas Lumley is deeply sympathetic as the friend who’s sought solace from loneliness in Christianity and who’s own complex history with Jane is gradually revealed, while Curnew and Sandle also have very affecting moments.

Ultimately, though, the evening belongs to Isla Blair who, as Jane, gives perhaps the least-heralded great performance currently to be seen on a London stage. Subtle, warm, bristling with feeling, she’s simply marvellous here. The structure of the play requires her to make lightening-fast on-stage transitions between physically-able (yet trapped) wife dismayed by the conflicts in the family home and MND-afflicted woman thinking back over her life and wondering what the sacrifices she’s made for others have really amounted to. Blair accomplishes this demanding task with consummate skill. The subtlety of her performance isn’t always matched by Betts’s writing: there's some pontificating on class and capitalism that feels intrusive, a little too much shouting in the second half, and a final reconciliation that’s too rushed to ring entirely true. The production is occasionally over-reliant on scenes of parallel action (with the danger that the audience doesn’t become fully involved in what’s happening on either side of the stage) but Sam Dowson’s set evokes the interior and exterior of the family home with economy, and the abrupt shifts between past and present are well handled. It's in its quieter, more measured scenes that The Company Man resonates the strongest, though. Jane observing the beauty of the morning, and lamenting all the other mornings she’s taken for granted throughout her life, was the moment that touched me most.

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.