“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”
— Joseph Campbell
Amidst the hype over the “big films” of 2010, including The King’s Speech, The Social Network, and Black Swan, a smaller, quieter movie was practically ignored. Yet for some viewers, British director Mike Leigh’s Another Year was more thought-provoking, deeper and subtler, and thus more satisfying than all the year’s award winners and money-makers.
The film traces a year in the lives of Tom and Gerri (I have no idea!), a middle-class British couple—she’s a psychologist, he’s a geologist—who appear, on the surface at least, to be just about as ordinary as folks in a Norman Rockwell painting. They live in (upper-end) row housing, lovingly tend their allotment garden, and enjoy eating hearty meals at home alone or sharing with friends. In fact, in the twelve months covered by the movie, nothing very much happens to them.
Yet I was fascinated by this couple. Tom is a scruffy-looking man of about sixty, gruffly cheerful, intelligent, and utterly content, not only with Gerri but clearly with himself and with life. Gerri is buck-toothed, not overly concerned with hair and clothes, warm, and like Tom, almost serenely content. A married couple of perhaps close to forty years, they are at once close and supportive friends and happy lovers. Even their son Joe, a plain, slightly frumpish man in his thirties, seems relatively carefree.
Tom and Gerri’s groundedness, both in their relationship and in their life, is symbolized by their devotion to the allotment garden. They can be found there in every season and even at home they remain connected to the earth by the produce they have harvested from the garden. Even Joe helps out with the digging and the planting.
The tranquility of Tom and Gerri is held in sharp contrast to the deep unhappiness exhibited by their friends and family. Mary, a secretary in the medical clinic that Gerri works in, is a lost soul desperately needy and self-deluding, who is both drawn to and envious of Tom and Gerri’s world. Tom’s boyhood friend Ken, a lonely and pathetic man, drinks, smokes, and eats compulsively and excessively and laments the passing of the good old days. His brother Ronnie, a pathologically morose man, is helpless when his wife (who kept him for their entire marriage) dies and their estranged son (who harbours serious anger issues) shows up to rage at his father.
Yet in the face of drunken and pitiful monologues, tales of lost love, lost lives, lost opportunities, and scenes of deep family dysfunction, the couple remains clear-eyed, good humoured, and lovingly empathetic. The calm seas on which their lives sail are barely rippled by the great depression that sometimes surrounds them. Knowing and being who they truly are is what enables Tom and Gerri to embrace the broken without taking on their pain.
Watching Tom and Gerri, I wondered where their contentedness came from. These two individuals are utterly unpretentious and are completely comfortable with who they are. Was it the relationship that nurtured the contentment or are these two people who found themselves first and then, as a natural consequence—the application of some divine or universal law—found each other? My vote goes to the latter.
The stars of this inspiring film are writer and director Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake, Topsy-Turvy), who has created a near-perfect character study, and Lesley Manville, whose stunning performance in the role of Mary is convincing in every pain-filled detail. The ubiquitous British actor Jim Broadbent (When Did You Last See Your Father?, Topsy-Turvy, Iris) seems to me always to play a variation of the same character, but one that is invariably compelling. Ruth Sheen is lovely as Gerri.
This is a film that really makes one think about what matters in a person’s life, about the value of simplicity and about the reality that lies beneath the surface of our desire for the illusory. Another Year is not a film for everyone: there is no obvious plot and the pain that some of the characters are experiencing makes the movie at times difficult to watch. But for the thoughtful and patient viewer the reward is great.
Trailer for Another Year
Another Year poster @ Wikipedia
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