by Rio Liang
I must admit that Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” had me in an editing mood after I saw it. It drew laughs at the Palm Springs International Film Festival where I saw it earlier this year–as well as a seeming collective “Huh?” from the audience by film’s end. There is an initial incoherence to the film that invites one to edit out in one’s mind what might be drossy in the script; in hopes, one might think, of exposing the story buried, somehow, within. But the urge to edit loses out upon closer examination of Leigh’s most recent oeuvre.
I suppose the film can be said to largely center around happily married therapist Gerri Hepple and her husband Tom, and their depressive friend Mary (Lesley Manville), a divorcee perpetually on the lookout for a man but whose difficulties in doing so drive her more often than not to inebriation. (A running gag in the film is Tom and Gerri often unwittingly playing host to various drunks). But the film also introduces us, albeit briefly, to various of London’s most unhappiest. Some do not linger long enough, which might challenge one’s expectation for continuity (such and such character introduced in the beginning should resonate by story’s end; or so a certain line of thinking goes, etc.). The very first scene of the film in fact is of an insomniac (Imelda Staunton) come to finally see a doctor to treat her disorder; she never returns later in the film, her last lines (an expression of her desire to have a new life, because as she explains, in this life, “Nothing changes”) coming probably about fifteen minutes or so into the film.
A narrative arc may be discerned through the path Mary takes throughout the film. Manville does a stellar job of portraying a monster–desperate, lonely, and ravaged by middle age–who is all too human. We’ve all seen Mary (perhaps even in ourselves): The self-absorbed victim whose suffering takes up so much space in others’ lives (much to those others’ chagrin). She’s a hot mess, to put it bluntly. She is in love with Joe, Gerri’s 30-year-old son, who cannot reciprocate the same interest in her. She is perhaps better suited for Ken, another of Tom’s and Gerri’s friends also currently going through a rough patch and who seeks relief, just like Mary, via drink. (In an ironic part of the film, Joe subtly rejects her advances, and she in turn rejects Ken’s advances; she is later in for more devastation when she finds herself foregone by Joe for a vibrant young woman). That Ken never physically returns later in the film, and thus never woos Mary over, might be counter to viewers’ expectation. But this isn’t so much an opportunity missed so much as foregone. Leigh isn’t one to lead us down that cliched path.
The film ends not with the aforementioned coming together of Mary and Ken, but rather that of Mary and a recent widower Ronnie (Tom’s brother). Both are mourning lives past (Ronnie is mourning his wife’s, and Mary her own). But there’s an important distinction here, as Mary perhaps starts to see through the haze and realize how much of a passing storm she has been, a nuisance. Her problems can no longer trump the crisis of others, specifically that faced by Tom and Gerri’s family (the death of their sister-in-law). The last shot of a family dinner (with Mary the always unwelcome guest now truly perhaps understanding how unwelcome she is) shows a stark divide between the happy and the depressed. On one side of the table are those who can carry on with their lives, and on the other those who simply can’t. A scene echoing the film’s beginning: Nothing indeed changes.
As an added bonus for the textually inclined, the screenplay, which was up for the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (but which unfortunately ceded the honor to Alan Sorkin’s sparkling script for “The Social Network”) is available here.