Winter Guide: Lesley Manville Is the Toast of Mike Leigh's Latest Film, Another Year

A guide to winter movie releases

Winter Guide: Lesley Manville Is the Toast of Mike Leigh's Latest Film, <i>Another Year</i>

British actress Lesley Manville is no stranger to social-realist filmmaker Mike Leigh’s improvisational working methods, their five collaborations dating back to the 1980 BBC film Grown Ups. In Another Year—Leigh’s wonderfully moving new drama about love, friendship, loneliness, and aging—Manville steals the show as middle-aged secretary Mary, a high-strung and perpetually single alcoholic who can’t get out of her own way. Manville, on the other hand, was simply delightful to talk with.

I’ve been touting your work in this film since Cannes, so I was baffled by The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis calling your performance a “hate-it or love-it turn.” Yes, I saw that. It’s quite a complex character, and if you judge it on the first hour of the film, you can think, “Oh, my god, is this going to be a relentless performance? This woman’s going to drive us mad.” You have to stay with it, because you do see Mary’s armor disappear. Talking too much, drinking too much, and being a bit full-on is her safety net because she’s so unhappy. I’ve been on the road with this film for quite some time now, and most people see the pain in Mary and find it touching. I don’t think it’s a love-it-or-hate-it situation, but everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and that’s all right.

Have you ever known a Mary in your life? I’ve known people with aspects of Mary. That’s not unique. We all know people who are lonely—male and female—who sometimes drink too much because they’re compensating for something or wanting to bury certain parts of their life in a dark corner. Sometimes they’re slightly better if they’re muted behind a few glasses of Chardonnay. It’s just that in the film, Mary is lined up alongside a very solid, happy couple. I think that contributes to seeing the starkness of her situation even more.

Manville (center) with liquid and non-liquid co-stars.
Simon Mein (c) Thin Man Films Ltd., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Manville (center) with liquid and non-liquid co-stars.

When a character’s pathetic behavior is so externally visible, how do you avoid making her a caricatured train wreck? I don’t know how much you know about the way Mike Leigh works, but we don’t start with a conventional script. We have a very lengthy period of rehearsal, detailed work and history, and building up a character’s past, and through that we develop the whole character. Eventually, big improvisations will happen, and out of that he will distill it down, make dialogue, tighten and dramatize it, and give it a narrative so that you then shoot. But we have 18 weeks before the cameras come, so it’s not a case of him saying, “Oh, I’ve got this great character, would you like to play it?” Mary doesn’t exist until he and I create her.

Another year, another winter. What are your plans for the holidays? We’ve always had big at-home Christmases, very traditional. Even though my son is 21 now, he loves spending the entire day in his pajamas, opening presents, and eating lots of turkey. But I said, “Maybe we should do something different this year, or be somewhere else.” I think I’m more of an adventurer than he is. He’s a bit of a traditionalist, and he likes the big tree all decorated. Look, it’s one day and I’m happy to pander to him. I might be able to pry him away from England, but I bet even if I did manage that, he’d end up saying, “Aw, Mom, can we spend Christmas at home next year?”

So what would be your perfect Christmas? I might go somewhere and not even acknowledge Christmas. I’d go on a yoga retreat or walk around the Himalayas, something completely unusual. 

‘Another Year’ opens December 29, (Sony Pictures Classics),

Winter Film Listings

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
December 3
You better watch out and you better start crying, for Jalmari Helander’s deliciously creepy Santa Claus fantasy is coming to town. In the remote tundra of northern Finland, a reindeer hunter’s young son discovers that a corporate-sponsored “seismic research” crew is attempting to unearth the long-buried Kris Kringle, a white-bearded ogre (or is he?) who spanks children to pieces. Alongside Gremlins and The Night Before Christmas, this audacious and unashamedly silly gift is an anti-holiday cult classic in the making. Oscilloscope Laboratories, in limited release,

Spanish Cinema Now
December 10 to 23
13th-century ghost stories (Aita), bouncy animated musicals (Chico & Rita), intense hostage thrillers (Kidnapped), an avant-garde Mexican classic (1962’s The Empty Balcony), and multiple commemorations of the Spanish Civil War’s 70th anniversary (don’t miss the war clowns in A Sad Trumpet Ballad) highlight one of the Film Society’s longest-running annual showcases. The unnerving, moody art-sploitation flicks of Agustí Villaronga (In a Glass Cage, El Mar) will also be honored in a sidebar tribute, fittingly titled “The Savage Eye.” The Film Society of Lincoln Center, West 65th Street and Broadways,

Rabbit Hole
December 17
Adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own Pulitzer-winning play, the story of a suburban couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) unable to cope with the death of their four-year-old son might sound like manipulative Oscar bait, but the inevitable accolades and audience heartbreak are deserved. Hedwig and the Angry Inch director John Cameron Mitchell smartly plays this incisive, unexpectedly funny drama more conventionally than usual, allowing two terrifically understated performances and a richly drawn, emotionally honest script to take charge. Lionsgate, in limited release,

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