Friday, March 4, 2011

Another Year Movie Review: It's Going to Be a Long Cold Winter

Tom and Gerri are about as nice a couple as you’re likely to meet in the cinema. They are loving, gentle, kind and understanding, both with others and each other. They have a son, Joe. He’s 30 years old without any serious relationship in the works. Tom and Gerri are anxious for him to settle down, but never pushy. They appear to everyone as the perfect couple without any problems. And still this is not one of those rotting from the inside relationship dramas. For all we’re presented, they are truly life partners and completely satisfied.

And yet they seem to surround themselves with unstable, morose people. There’s Mary (Lesley Manville), a colleague of Gerri’s. She gets invited round for the occasional supper (Tom and Gerri are fabulous cooks both) or small gathering. Tom’s got a brother, Ronnie (David Bradley), who we meet late in the film at his wife’s funeral. We’re told earlier that he’s mean. And his son is certainly angry at him about something. Then there’s an old school friend, Ken (Peter Wight), now overweight and drinking and smoking so much we expect him to keel over at any moment. Not only is his health poor, but he’s lost his direction and is afraid of what his inevitably impending retirement will bring.

As the title Another Year suggests, the film is a portrait of a year in the life of Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen). The story takes us through the seasons beginning with the new life of spring when things seem to be looking up, and then closes with winter and the aftermath of Ronnie’s wife’s funeral.

Writer-director Mike Leigh is known for allowing his actors a great deal of space to develop their characters. He allows a lot of controlled improvisation. His style usually fosters intimate portrayals and honest character studies. His locations feel lived-in and his characters feel like people you might know. But something about Another Year is very different. It feels more written than Leigh’s previous screenplays. This is mainly the result of the Jon Gregory’s editing, which applies a lot of fast cutting in group dialogue scenes. The camera always cuts away instantly at the end of a line to jump to the next, leaving no time for processing the words. There are virtually no static shots involving multiple characters engaged in dialogue – a technique which allows the actors’ performances to really shine.

Perhaps this was a stylistic choice to emphasize the haphazard personality of Mary, who sucks up all the attention when she’s around. Her motor mouth never takes a break, she’s manic, she smokes and drinks, and she’s always got problems. When she drinks a bit too much one night during dinner at Tom and Gerri’s, she becomes a rambling, complaining nut. They put up with her like good sports (they’ve obviously witnessed this scene before), but people like Mary tend to wear out their welcome quite quickly. She’s what the Spanish might call muy pesada (literally “very heavy”) for which we have no apt translation in English.

Mary figures in every season of their lives. Perhaps Gerri, a counselor with a kind heart, can’t say no. The opening of the film shows Gerri dealing with a profoundly unhappy woman (Imelda Staunton), establishing her caring and sympathetic, but professional attitude toward people’s personal problems. Mary is completely hamstrung by some poor luck and poorer choices. She was on the bad end of a divorce and then met a man she truly loved, but he wouldn’t leave his wife. Now she has eyes for Joe, at least 20 years her junior.

Manville has gotten a lot of accolades for her performance, but I don’t see it. The performance is heavily forced. Manville tries too hard to be nervous and jittery playing a woman attempting to mask her overwhelming insecurities. What I usually like about Leigh’s films is how natural they feel. Manville continually reveals the mechanics of acting. Mary rarely feels like a character. She’s more like a type, and I’m not even sure she’s a realistic type.

The entire production design changes with the seasons so that when we finally reach winter and the funeral everything is gray and cobalt. The joy has completely seeped out of the film’s palette, leaving the final lugubrious scenes feeling dead and almost unwatchable.

Still, Tom and Gerri are a wonderful pair to spend time with. Broadbent, as brilliant in this role as a humble family man as he is in his larger than life roles like Harry Ziedler in Moulin Rouge or W.S. Gilbert in Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, and Sheen are just marvelous at creating two people who always feel real. Another Year may be worth it for their company if, like Tom and Gerri, you can put up with their friends for the duration.

ADDENDUM: If you take a look at this "Anatomy of a Scene" from the NY Times you'll hear Mike Leigh talking about a scene from his film Happy-Go-Lucky which is an entirely static shot that goes on for nearly 3 minutes and contains some brilliant acting. This is the kind of thing I felt was really lacking in Another Year.

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