Another Year is so familiar it feels rigged. It’s a superbly crafted and deeply affecting movie, and I advise everyone to see it, yet there’s something in it that I object to, and the following remarks are an attempt at defining this troubling element.
For a director so often (and justly) praised for his all-encompassing humanitarian approach, Leigh seems strongly drawn to the notion of duality: behavioral, structural and even visual. His most memorable images are two-shots, like that famed long take of Cynthia and Hortense in Secrets & Lies (1996), having their long exchange at an empty café, or the magnificent closing shot of two nursing mothers in Four Days in July (1984). What I find troubling in Leigh (whom I consider to be one of the greatest directors in world cinema), and what significantly taints Another Year in my view, is his habit of pitting characters against each other while giving them biased treatment – not in terms of empathy, which is spread rather evenly in each film (save Who’s Who ), but in terms of applying frank and unflinching insight.
In Another Year, Tom and Gerri, the central married couple played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen (who’s a God’s riff on Shelley Duvall), seem to have attained the Holy Grail of modernity (or at least of a successful therapy): they’re balanced without being rigid. Leigh’s distribution of anxiety is brazenly uneven – it’s Mary, played by Lesley Manville, who embodies it in the world of this movie. Mary keeps “popping in” to visit her friends, her nerves perpetually frayed and hands all aflutter (she’s a neurotic twin to Brenda Blethyn’s chirping Gloria in Grown-Ups ). She’s a lush; a walking mess in constant need of validation who takes hostage anyone foolish enough to grant her their full attention. Each time Tom and Gerri are with her, they can’t help but mildly (and understandably) condescend to her.
What I mind about this film is, ultimately, that Leigh goes soft on Tom, Gerri and their son. Happy chatter is a way of life for them, and nothing seems capable of breaking their constant merriment. It may even be that nothing truly touches them, thanks to the armor provided by Leigh, who feels more protective of them than of a character like Mary, who gets straightforwardly admonished at the end for her selfish ways. It is the same admonishment one witnessed in All or Nothing (and again, it was the Lesley Manville character who had to undergo it), and in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), in which Leigh went as far as branding the Eddie Marsan character unredeemable (even his teeth were rotten).
The last shot of Another Year is masterly: Mary’s face gets alive for a second, and then – as soon as she’s no longer the center of attention – she goes blank, recoils, and even the soundtrack goes silent as she fails yet again to weave herself into the lives of others. Leigh is capable of this amazing insight, and yet guilty of carefree idealization of Tom and Gerri, who are so quaint they’re sugarcoated. Jim Broadbent’s old codger and Ruth Sheen’s mother-earth-fancy-a-cuppa are presented as beacons of sanity, whereas they’re not even fleshed out enough to require sanity in the first place. They don’t seem to have contradictory forces in them to balance out, so how can we learn from them; much less believe in them…?
It may be that Tom and Gerri’s mysterious contentment is so much up Leigh’s alley that he exempts them from satirical incision, only to apply it forcefully to Mary. Much like the central married couple, he’s a gardener in a greenhouse of his rich creation. Some flowers he tends to, and reverently – some, he can’t help but nip.