Friday, January 21, 2011

Another Year

(Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent in Another Year/Thin Man Films)
      Mike Leigh’s films are about social class in disrepair and people in despair. Yet recently, he seems to have tried to break from that mold with Happy Go Lucky (2008), a bubbly, for him, examination of basic joy amidst the turmoil of others. With Another Year the bleakness is back, yet more reasoned. There is none of the nilhism from Naked, none of the implicit left wing sentimentality of All or Nothing, or the loopy, stylized acting from films like Career Girls. Another Year is basically a comedy for the first three acts—a comedy about miserable lives pushed up against the content life of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). The most prominent of these lives is Mary’s (Lesley Manville). Mary is a highly strung woman who refused to grow up at some point along the way, and is the worse for it. She is clueless about the needs of others, wanting only to talk about herself, trying out a façade of politeness. She drinks too much wine and does not know how to take care of her new car, which becomes the film’s running gag.  She works with Gerri at a hospital and Gerri, a psychiatrist, is kind enough to socialize with this exasperating woman. But it is the life of Gerri and Tom that anchor the film, keeping the ruin that surrounds them in check. For once, Leigh lets us spend most of our time with people whom we might actually spend time with.
            The structure of Another Year, too, differs from Leigh’s earlier films. The film is named as such because it spans the length of a year, with each season being introduced by an onscreen title and closed by a fade out on a human face. This structure has been done again and again, but if it seems contrived, it actually frees Leigh up, and saves the film from some of the redundancies of his earlier pictures. Most of Leigh’s films feature a huge ensemble cast going about their lives and bumping in to each other before an inevitable, prolonged denoument of character and plot threads colliding. Another Year is smoothed out; the end contains no grand-bang character summary, only a whimper. While his earlier films could be so acting-workshop driven that certain characters were introduced and left hanging, nobody we meet in Another Year is a performance exercise. The only home we ever enter is Tom and Gerri’s, and all other players—including a fantastic Peter Wright, deserving of his own film—simply play off their domesticity. The prologue, featuring Imelda Staunton as a depressed insomniac woman, is the best way Leigh can think of to introduce us to the stage of life, and anguish, of the proceeding characters. Staunton is asked by Gerri what would make her most happy in her life and replies “Another life.” With this one line, she barely helps Leigh pull it off.
(Another Year/ Thin Man Films)

            Most of Leigh’s previous films have been shot by Dick Pope, a cinematographer as adept in gray lighting and washed out color tones as he is in ebullient color. But only here, for the first time since Naked, has he been able to get some real photography done. Another Year favors the human face over any other object and the medium close up as the only effective way to tell a story. But it also contains possibly the only use of slow motion in a Leigh film—of a hearse coming to a stop, no less—and a dramatic visual shift in the ‘Winter’ section that just oozes death; because that’s exactly what has happened. The way Pope depicts people—an overweight Peter Wright stuffing food in his mouth, two women embracing in a kitchen—makes him something akin to a Dutch master of film, and an asset Leigh cannot possibly work without.
            None of this is too suggest that Another Year ever feels style-heavy. Yet even talking about style in a Mike Leigh film creates its own problem, because it feels like Leigh has no wish for us to think about anything other than his characters. For him, atmosphere is something that comes from a person’s eyes and mood is something that comes from the way they slouch in their seats. This sounds like a theatrical way of making a film, but it is in fact what has made his films progressively more cinematic cinematic and gloriously overstuffed in a way only films are allowed to be. Even the genuine theatrical aspects of his work are toned down here; the performances are not so gesture heavy any more, and the way the film jumps from one season to the next is something alien to the stage. Leigh has worked off and on in the theater all his adult life. He didn’t even come in to his own as a feature filmmaker until his late forties. Only now has he really decided on what a film should be, and found an agreeable middle ground for cinema and theater. Perhaps this late blooming can account for his sympathy for the middle aged or older characters in this film, who expected things they didn’t get, and never bloomed.