Everybody dies. Not everybody gets old, but most do. Mike Leigh’s Another Year considers both of these tragedies with the humour, heart and pathos fitting for humanity’s two great burdens. It tells the story of sexagenarians Tom and Gerri (yes, just like the cartoon), who have enjoyed a charmed marriage and – far from retirement, and the irrelevance of old age – continue to live in idyllic peace. We learn that they are the exception and not the rule when we meet their friends Mary (a fifty-something lush desperate to find a companion), Ken (another lonely-heart with a voracious appetite and an appropriately-sized belly) and Tom’s brother Ronnie (a softly-spoken -if at all – widower). Leigh treats us to four seasons in one film, and we witness relationships flourish and friendships’ flounder during this 12-month period. When all is said and done, little has changed, except for the undeniable fact that everyone is one year older, and one year closer to death. Leigh has always dealt with painful truths, but I’m not sure if he’s ever done it quite so tenderly before.
It’s not unusual (to be loved by anyone – sorry, digression; let me start again). It’s not unusual for filmmakers in their twilight years to ponder the inevitable march towards the cold embrace of death. Although 67-year-old Leigh is hardly knocking on heaven’s door, Another Year proves that the inevitable shuffle off the mortal coil isn’t far from his mind. His film reminded me of Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, a touching yet brutal elegy, and swan song for the legendary auteur who passed away mere months after its release. Another Year doesn’t quite play up the elegiac metaphors like A Prairie Home Companion (which told the story of a soon-to-be-defunct live radio show visited by the Angel of Death herself), but it too fuses profound sadness with effervescent humour. But whereas Altman’s film resigned itself to our shared fates, Another Year features characters who are desperately grasping onto their final years of existence without any concern for going out gracefully. It’s tough to watch, but easy to identify with.
As per usual, Leigh’s latest is a wonderful showcase for his troupe of fine actors, with whom he spent months improvising to help flesh out the script and their characters. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are so charming as Tom and Gerri; like aged versions of the tirelessly cheerful and endlessly wise Poppy from Leigh’s previous film Happy Go Lucky. Lesley Manville is suitably frantic as Mary, who devolves over the course of the film from annoying friend to a heartbreakingly doomed figure. Oliver Maltman is also wonderful as Tom and Gerri’s son Joe, and Leigh regular Imelda Staunton has a brief but lasting performance early on that sets the tone for the rest of the picture.
The film is sumptuously shot by Leigh regular Dick Pope, who slowly drains away the colour as the seasons turn from Spring, to Summer, to Autumn and then finally to the cobalt blue of Winter. We don’t often think of Leigh as a visual director, but Another Year is as visually striking as it is emotionally affecting. If you leave this review without an understanding of what actually happens in Another Year, I swear that’s intentional and not another example of my film-reviewerly-incompetence. I will share only that we spend a year with this eclectic, human collective of characters. We are not witness to many major events in this time, but – thanks to Leigh’s peerless understanding of relationships and the human desires and fears we all share – the smallest moments are amplified to the point they will stay with you long after the movie has ended.
Another Year is now showing across Australia.