Early in Another Year we see married couple Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) happily working on their allotment garden in London. For a moment the hole that has been dug resembles a grave while a square piece of plastic protectively covering a bank of vegetables looks like a coffin. However, what Tom and Gerri are enthusiastically working away at is the creation of life and nourishment – the complete opposite of death. Later in the film during a small lunch gathering a friend of Tom and Gerri’s presents her recently born baby. In the same scene another friend softly apologises for the absence of his wife, who is too sick to attend and has been so for some time. The film’s title, the reminders of life and death, and the structure of breaking the film up into four parts named after the seasons all contribute to the themes of passing time and what we do with our lives during the time that we have.
At the centre of the film is Tom and Gerri, one of the most wonderful on-screen couples that cinema has ever produced. Tom is a geologist, further connecting him with earthy values, while Gerri is a counsellor, establishing her as a nurturer. In fact, all the characters in Another Year work in a capacity that helps or looks after other people but it is Tom and Gerri who provide the comfort, kindness, humour and compassion to the less happy friends and family who populate their lives. Each of the four segments of the film focuses on a character who Tom and Gerri care for in some way but the main character who features throughout the film is Gerri’s work colleague and friend Mary (Lesley Manville).
While presenting a brave face to the world, the likeable and skittish Mary is clearly lonely, drinks to deal with her pain and seeks out other short-term fixes that cause more problems rather than truly help. The themes of avoidance and denial in Another Year rest with many of the characters, not least of all Mary, and commence with the opening scenes depicting Imelda Staunton as a woman seeking help for her insomnia. We only see Staunton’s character once more close to the start of the film where her desire to simply get a sleeping pill prescription rather than address the sadness in her life that is the likely cause of her sleeping disorder represent many of the issues shared by the range of Tom and Gerri’s friends and family.
Another Year is one of writer/director Mike Leigh’s best films to date as it conjures up so many universal themes in its depiction of an immediately recognisable group of characters. While Leigh’s work in the past has had a tendency to focus on English class division issues, sometimes very effectively but sometimes a little heavy handed, Another Year is a move away from overt political commentary. As with Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year is a far more upbeat, hopeful and even humorous film than many of Leigh’s previous films. The fact that in both films Leigh can present warm and likeable characters and yet still explore everyday suffering and pain, with powerful emotional results, is a testament to Leigh’s talents.
As always, the plot and characterisation for Another Year are the result of a lengthily rehearsal and improvisation process that Leigh conducts with his actors, many of whom he has a long working relationship with. The outcomes are well-rounded characters and wonderful free flowing dialogue, but it would be a mistake to assume that Leigh is a cinéma vérité director who doesn’t have complete control over the film he is making. The naturalism in Another Year is the result of meticulous filmmaking with Dick Pope’s cinematography perfectly capturing the light of each scene to convey a particular mood and time of year. Leigh and Pope also know exactly when to position the camera to capture a character’s face in close-up and linger just long enough for the true meaning of the scene to come out via facial expressions rather than dialogue.
Another Year is an extraordinarily rewarding film full of characters to embrace and empathise with. It’s a tribute to kindness, family and friendship without sentiment, easy answers or judgement. The final shot alone is enough evidence to the film’s strengths in the powerful juxtaposition that it creates through the way the camera slowly moves over the characters to strategically group them through framing. The fact that you can almost anticipate what image the camera will finally rest on does nothing to remove the immense power of the final shot in this rich and moving film.