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Movie review: 'Another Year'

In Mike Leigh's latest, a stable couple are the island of calm amid an unsettled circle of friends. Ah, life always has a few surprises up its sleeve.

December 29, 2010|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Jim Broadbent, left, Lesley Manville and Oliver Maltman star in "Another Year."
Jim Broadbent, left, Lesley Manville and Oliver Maltman star in "Another… (Simon Mein / Sony Pictures…)

"Another Year" is about the turning wheel of life, an examination of the pleasures and jealousies, disappointments and insecurities, destroyed dreams and rekindled hopes that make up our daily existence. It may sound commonplace, but in the hands of master filmmaker Mike Leigh, the everyday becomes extraordinary.

The film is also further proof — if proof is necessary after six Oscar nominations for writing and directing, a Palme d'Or and a best director award from Cannes, and a Golden Lion from Venice — that Leigh's explorations of human psychology are on a level of their own.

Using a particular method of working with actors that thoroughly involves them in creating characters from the ground up, Leigh goes deeper into individuals than one would have thought possible. The people he and his cast create in this joint venture combine depth and complexity with a kind of unstudied naturalism, so much the better to make audiences complicit in their lives.

The three actors who are the focus of "Another Year" — Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen and an indescribable Lesley Manville — are all veterans of multiple Leigh ventures, and it's a special pleasure to see them finding their places in this new situation, to watch as Leigh slowly but with impeccable sureness adds character and incident to the mix.

If Leigh's last film, " Happy-Go-Lucky," focused on youthful concerns, "Another Year" shows us life through the lens of people who are older but still trying to connect with one another, still trying to figure out the elusive answer to the human equation.

After a stunning opening vignette featuring Imelda Staunton, "Another Year" introduces its central figures of Tom (Broadbent) and Gerri (Sheen in an especially subtle performance). They are as sane and stable a longtime married couple as Leigh's films have ever offered. He is a geologist, she a mental health counselor, and together they form an island of steadiness and dependability, underlined by their passion for gardening, that everyone they know clings to and admires.

No one depends more on these two than Mary (Manville), a coworker of Gerri's who's been a family friend for close to 20 years. Mary is a little frantic from the first moments we see her, a flighty, live-wire individual who seems to have too much energy for her own good. We notice this but, like Tom and Gerri, we let it go because, well, that's just the way she is.

"Another Year" is broken up into four sections, each named after a season. Though Tom, Gerri and Mary appear in all of them, each season has its own particular narrative line, kind of like a short story within a themed collection.

The film starts with spring, which provides an intense look at Mary when she comes to Tom and Gerri's for dinner. Within the context of a single evening, Manville's superlative acting unself-consciously peels Mary like an onion, revealing her as someone alternately in denial and despair about the unhappiness in her life, uncomfortable in her own skin but unwilling or unable to do anything about it but drink too much too often.

Summer brings a visit from Ken ( Peter Wight), an old childhood friend of Tom's. Though the motto on Ken's T-shirt ("less thinking, more drinking") indicates a possibly dissonant lifestyle choice, the two remain close enough for a wonderful impromptu moment in which Tom jumps on his pal's shoulders.

Against all reason (isn't that always the way?), Ken finds himself attracted to Mary, with unsettling results. Even more against reason, autumn brings an intensification of what had seemed a harmless romantic crush on Mary's part, with even more unsettling results.

The mood darkens in winter, when a funeral brings Tom and Gerri to Tom's childhood home, where his brother Ronnie (a marvelous David Bradley in his first Leigh film) is coping with his wife's death and the emotional assaults of his disaffected son, Carl (Martin Savage).

It's inevitable that some of these individuals have more screen time than others, but Leigh's methods ensure that everyone brings the same level of intensity and commitment to what he or she does. As "Another Year" and its memorable people prove one more time, there are no small parts in these films. When Leigh says, as he did in Cannes, that "I practice a craft that can't be copied," this is what he's talking about.


'Another Year'

MPAA rating: PG-13, for some language

Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes

Playing: At Landmark, Los Angeles; Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Town Center 5, Encino; Westpark 8, Irvine


kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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