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Another Year, the 10th feature-length British soap written and directed by Mike Leigh, concerns a year in the life of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), the happiest post-middle-aged married couple in the whole of the London suburbs. Heading into their fifth decade together, Tom and Gerri are healthy and sufficiently employed, blessed with a thriving community-garden allotment and a good relationship with Joe (Oliver Maltman), their thirtyish son. They’re even—if a bit of innuendo on the part of Tom that makes Gerri blush is to be believed—still up for the occasional nooner.
Tom and Gerri are so “together” that it’s no wonder everyone around them looks like a mess. There’s Tom’s brother, Ronnie (David Bradley), a morose longhair rendered nearly mute by the death of his wife and the hostility of his grown son, and Tom’s old school pal, Ken (Peter Wight), a chain-smoking glutton feigning ignorance as to how he ended up old and alone. Featured most prominently (and dealt with by Leigh most troublingly), there’s Mary (Lesley Manville), a co-worker of Gerri’s who regularly imposes upon Gerri and Tom at home, joining the couple for chardonnay-soaked meals that inevitably end with Mary blubbering incoherently about her failed relationships until she passes out in Joe’s bedroom. In a film full of highly exaggerated performances that intermittently tip into caricature, Manville’s has been the most praised; it’s also the most grotesque. If this is good acting, then quantity and quality must be synonyms.
Unfolding in four episodes pegged to the seasons, Another Year’s arc covers the widening gulf between Tom and Gerri’s entitled contentment, and the increasingly bleak desperation of their family and friends. Ken and Mary, envious of Tom and Gerri’s bond to one another, seem to regard the couple’s home as a safe space in which to unload—apparently oblivious to the knowing looks that Tom and Gerri exchange right in front of them. The further the characters are etched, the harder it becomes to figure out with whom Leigh intends us to identify: Tom and Gerri’s horrible house guests, who you can’t help but pity for their clueless concern for only themselves? Or self-appointed “Saint Gerri” and her even more self-righteous partner, whose care for friends and family is never anything less than condescending?
In fact, the most interesting aspect of Another Year is its slow, subtle shift in perspective. We start out watching Mary behave awfully through the eyes of Gerri and Tom, whose smugness is equally awful (they’re such a unit that to get passive-aggressive, they both have to chip in—Gerri’s judgment is passive, Tom’s aggressive). But by the film’s final scene, as an unchanged Tom and Gerri finish one another’s sentences when telling an insufferable story about the time they traveled all over the world “and didn’t even have to do it cheaply,” we’re seeing the scene from the point of view of Mary, who—though humbled by a year’s worth of disappointment and defeat to the point of being physically depleted—is still totally awful, a needy drunk whose self-pity sends out stink waves. I haven’t seen a film this year that so openly invited me to revile each and every one of its characters—and I reviewed The Human Centipede.