Tuesday, 19 October 2010
London Film Festival: Another Year
If I'm being totally honest, I haven't always got along with Mike Leigh’s films. I adored the primal howl of Naked as a young, angry man for its, well, young, angry man-ness and David Thewlis’ towering performance as the part-sociopath/part-seer Johnny – but a lot of Leigh's other films left me cold.
His intimate, ensemble pieces always seemed to rub me up the wrong way somehow. I would watch the screeching, caricatured misfits of Life is Sweet and High Hopes and where others saw incisive wit and insight I saw arch stereotypes and studied condescension. But I really think I think I need to go back to Leigh’s work, because Another Year is as close to a masterpiece as any film I’ve seen in 2010.
This is very much one of Leigh’s ensemble works. Its character driven, has almost no dramatic arc, doesn’t revolve around any big events or a grand reveal. There are no lessons learned, nobody changes much or goes on an emotional journey.
It simply documents four seasons in the lives of Gerri and Tom, a happy-in-themselves (albeit very slightly self-satisfied) older couple. Their simple life involves tending to their allotment, worrying about whether their son will ever get a girlfriend and entertaining the various friends and family members that pass in and out of their lives over the course of a year.
Another Year feels absolutely authentic, the apex of Leigh’s favoured working practice to have his performers’ engage in workshop sessions and improvise from a bare-bones script. There are almost no false notes in this film, though there are many recognisable elements of social embarrassment and unease.
I found one character, Ken, an old friend of Tom's, so tragic and difficult to watch I had to cover my eyes for most of his screen time. Its easy to forget in the era of ‘social embarrassment’ verite (The Office) that Leigh was doing all this stuff years ago – in mordantly observed character pieces like Abigail’s Party and Nuts in May.
But there is an absolute mastery of tone and here. There are still telltale moments of Leigh’s broader, more condescending approach but the strength of the acting wins the day.
Lesley Manville’s character Mary is not the most complex – on paper it could look like a cheap, vaguely misogynist pot-shot of a part – the boozy old past-it flirt, forever necking pinot grigio. But the richness and subtlety of her performance means she is fully-rounded, funny and tragic, absolutely recognisable. These are fantastically realised, frequently moving, immaculate character studies.
I don’t remember Leigh holding the image as much as he does here. It wouldn’t be facile to suggest that there is an Ozu-like quality to much of this film, if Ozu had been a bearded Jewish Mancunian with an eye and ear for English foibles. There is a single scene towards the end of the film where Tom (Jim Broadbent), comforting a taciturn family member in the aftermath of a death, takes him upstairs to pack a suitcase. Everything about the scenes is sublime, unforced. Broadbent does this ridiculous- looking methodical smoothing and folding of shirts. It’s quietly devastating in a way that’s hard to describe.
I’ve heard some grumbles that Another Year is a kind of marriage/coupling propaganda piece, Leigh somehow channelling David Cameron and making all the single characters miserable and desperate while holding up the central couple as the gold standard of what we should all strive for. But I think Leigh has as canny eye on his seemingly perfect older duo; their bliss seems more like a happy accident as much as anything and both actors do a good job of quietly nailing their occasional cruel indifference, their slight smugness. But no one is demonised here. These are rich, recognisable characters that’ve made choices - some good some bad, some disastrous.
Leigh has stepped up a gear here, and this is the work of a mature artist, which marries slow-burning European dramatic sensibilities to a very English sense of social comedy. I wonder how many of the really talented young UK filmmakers of today will be making films this resonant and important in their sixties.
Looking wider, it’s interesting to compare Leigh’s current position with his sometime US counterpart Woody Allen. As Allen diminishes in stature so Leigh’s stock rises. This year I could barely make it past thirty minutes with the protagonists of Allen’s awful Whatever Works. I could’ve happily spent Another Year with Leigh’s.