Fair warning: I fully admit that this post is rather rambly and long, but this movie seems to take a bit of rambling. If you’ve seen it, I’d be curious to hear what you think too…
Last week I watched Another Year, and, to say the least, it was not what I expected.
But do you really think I’m going to say “the least?” I thought I was going to write you a list of some sort, but I just can’t. This movie is taking thinking and I’m still figuring out what I think. And the fact that it’s making me think this much is actually making me like the movie more and more.
I knew that it was a Mike Leigh film and was therefore going to be more of a character study than anything else, but I knew that I liked the people in it, had heard great things about it last year, and I love Happy-Go-Lucky. Actually, I wasn’t sure about that one the first time I watched it either, but I liked it more and more the longer it percolated, watched it again and loved it, and have since bought it to own and rewatch forever and ever. Amen.
So I went into Another Year with high hopes.
Another Year is the story of Tom and Gerri,* a lovely couple who live somewhere in London and like to tend their community garden plot. He’s a geologist, she’s a therapist at a hospital, they do everything together, seem to be very content and happy, and aren’t they just so lucky.
Here’s the IMDb logline:
A look at four seasons in the lives of a happily married couple and their relationships with their family and friends.
Another summary adds on “…who are all miserable.”
That’s pretty much what I had heard going into this and it’s true, but it also led me to believe that Tom and Gerri were the center of the story. I think they are the sun around which their friends and family revolve, but if that’s the metaphor we’re going with, then this is really a story about Pluto. By which I mean that I found this to really be a story about Mary (about whom there’s always something, right?**).
Mary is a secretary at the hospital where Gerri works and the two are friends. Maybe not good friends, but Mary comes to their house for dinner a few times a month, and we learn that she has been doing so for twenty years. She’s known Tom and Gerri’s thirty-year-old son Joe since he was a little boy.
Now, Mary has clearly been having some problems. Over the course of the movie, she goes from drowning her problems in wine and putting on a brave face to alienating her good friends to showing up on their doorstep unexpectedly, depressed and bedraggled and barely able to keep from crying at all times. Mary is both fascinating and incredibly annoying; a toxic friend if ever there was one.
Which can make for a fascinating and also sometimes annoying movie.
There are some really great moments, but I found myself wondering how they all related into the story. Is this a story or just a sketch of some people and the world around them? Would that be such a bad thing?
If you want a story arc, besides the year structure to which the movie adheres, I think you could also sum it up thusly: The Saga of Mary’s Car. As you might guess from the aforementioned crying… it does not go well. First we hear about her plans to get a car and how it’s going to change her life for the better. It even gets said out loud that this will be the big turning point to make her life better, so, of course, everything goes downhill from there. In the end, Mary has sold her lemon of a car off for just 20 pounds because it is no longer worth the price of fixing. She tried, the woman really did try. She bought the damn thing, didn’t she? But the arc of “Mary Gets a Car” is a tragic one.
There is a larger turning point in her friendship with Gerri, when she goes from being the friend they put up with to crossing a line that she can’t take back, but I’m trying not to totally spoil it. Even that moment relates into the saga of the car (the changes are reflected in how she talks about it). Mike Leigh seems to have a thing with driving, doesn’t he?
When I finished the movie the other day, it left me a little depressed and I wasn’t sure I liked how I felt or liked the movie that much, but I have found that I am really enjoying thinking about it all. Mary so clearly wants to be part of this family; in fact, all of Tom and Gerri’s friends want what they have, and there’s nothing anyone can do to really fix the situation. There’s no quick fix for Mary or any of the others – life just didn’t work out so well. They’re divorced or widowed or drunk or obnoxious or plain unlucky. And we realize how lucky Tom and Gerri are. They’re not patronizing, they’re not pushing their good fortune in others’ faces. Things are what they are. Mary tries to change things for herself, she really tries with the car, but it’s not so easy. And she can’t just switch lives. As Gerri points out, it’s her family, not Mary’s, and she is going to defend it as such. So where is the line of responsibility? How much help can Gerri really give? What does it take from her to do so?
There’s also a large theme of getting older and what happens to you, especially if you are on your own, which I think is an important and interesting and also very difficult topic to address well. This quiet film does a pretty nice job of it.
The performances are all really wonderful; subtle and quiet and very very real. Ruth Sheen plays Gerri, Jim Broadbent is Tom, and Lesley Manville plays Mary (for which she was nominated for and won a bunch of awards). I also loved Karina Fernandez as Joe’s new girlfriend, Katie.
Manville does a brilliant job – it’s one of those situations where you can see how amazing she is by how much you react to the character, even if it’s in disgust. She’s so fully committed, and has created such a fully fleshed out woman, even if that woman can be annoying and rather pathetic. I thought I was going to be writing about how much I disliked her character, because I did a lot of the time. She makes you cringe a little. But that also puts you in the same position as Tom and Gerri. What would you do with a woman like Mary?
Gerri doesn’t give away too much as a character. She and Tom often communicate simply by looks, and they are clearly happy to be in each other’s presence in silence. She comes across as a solid, soothing, presence. I think she is the sun that Pluto is frantically orbiting. And in the end, Pluto is told that it’s no longer a planet, not really part of the solar system anymore. (this metaphor is totally working, you guys)
The film ends on a rather depressing note: Mary is still at Tom and Gerri’s dinner table but now almost completely excluded (and rather rightfully so). She retreats into herself, realizing that there is now a great distance spanning the kitchen table. The soundtrack goes silent – she no longer hears the conversation, there is no more music. This was an odd note to finish the overall portrait, not to mention that it cemented my feelings that Mary was the true subject of Leigh’s story. It made me start questioning her sanity and what her relationship with Gerri had really been during the rest of film – she had definitely been getting some free therapy, even just the therapy of warm, well-adjusted friends. Did Gerri see her as a patient? Were their dinners together just charity? Mary needed her time with them, they anchored her into real life a bit I think, but that also means she was using them.
In trying to figure out the ending, I remembered the beginning of the film, when Imelda Staunton appears for two scenes as an insomniac housewife at the hospital for treatment. The doctor recommends therapy to get to the source of her problems and she visits Gerri once, never to be heard from again. The scene sets up Gerri’s profession, but I realized we never got a resolution to that little snapshot and so began to ponder the reason that scene was included. It feels a bit odd and latched on and at the end I realized I had forgotten that that was where we began! In thinking it over, it seems this isolated patient scene helps set the tone for the story, and possibly gives a theme that can later apply to Mary. Staunton’s character has been unable to sleep for…you guessed it…a whole year. Gerri is trying to get her to address the possible emotional reasons for this, and asks her to name her happiest moment. She cannot name any happy moment in her life and, when asked what could make her life better, she says, “A different life.”
So is it that some people got lucky, got the warm happy family they wanted rooting them to life, while others are floating lost, trying to make the best of what they’ve been handed but sometimes just getting the shit end of the stick? How much of a role do these people play in their own fate? Where does the responsibility lie?
Pretty fascinating stuff. I thought the film was too loose a sketch of some characters, without enough focus, to really satisfy. But maybe this is going the way of Happy-Go-Lucky. Maybe in a little while I should try watching it again. Maybe this is my relationship with Mike Leigh’s work.
Or maybe I’m just thinking too much.
* Their names would have been #1 on my list of Things I Like.
If you want more, I think this is a fabulous review from Ion Arts, able to place Another Year within Leigh’s greater cannon of work and taking his particular style and method of creation into account.