I look forward to a Mike Leigh movie the way some readers anticipate a new novel by their favorite author. But unlike some writers who hew to comfortable formulas, Leigh always cooks up something different; you never know what to expect. The most obvious common thread in his work is the appearance of familiar actors from his informal stock company, many of whom have won honors for their work in his pictures (Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies, Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake, Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky, et al). The deeper through-line is his concern with ordinary people, usually from the working class, in a throwback to England’s famous “kitchen sink” dramas of the late 1950s and early 60s. Many of those dramas were famously angry, while Leigh sees the brighter side of life.
Leigh’s films derive from a lengthy process of improvisation and character study with his actors. Even they don’t know what the ultimate storyline will be when they—
—start out, and whether they’ll have a leading role or wind up in support.
No one has appeared in more Mike Leigh movies than Lesley Manville, but she’s never commanded as much attention as she has for her work in Another Year. There is justifiable talk of a possible Oscar nomination for her performance in this wonderful, compassionate film. Yet Manville isn’t the whole show; far from it.
Another Year wends its leisurely way through four seasons in the life of a middle-aged couple who live a contented life, brimming with good humor. They are played by those endearing Leigh stalwarts Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, who radiate warmth and a sense of well-being. That is more than can be said for Sheen’s friend and co-worker Mary (Manville), a bundle of neuroses who only seems to get worse with the passage of time. An old pal of Broadbent’s, played by Peter Wight, isn’t much better off, having surrendered his life to overeating and drinking.
Like so many of Leigh’s movies, this one doesn’t so much tell a story as offer a slice of life, showing how the characters evolve over the course of twelve months, including the main couple’s son, who has clearly inherited his parents’ sense of humor but hasn’t yet settled down.
Leigh doesn’t indulge in cheap jokes at his characters’ expense. He presents them, warts and all, and allows us respond to them in our own way. In the case of Manville’s pathetic Mary, all I could think of was how many people I know who are just like her. How often does one get that feeling from a mainstream movie nowadays? For that matter, how many filmmakers would build a picture around a couple of “a certain age” who are kind to one another and everyone around them?
Mike Leigh is a remarkable dramatist because he is fascinated with the commonplace, and finds beauty in simplicity. In film after film he celebrates both individuality and the community of mankind, with the help of his immensely gifted actors. By the closing scene of Another Year my eyes were tearing up; this is a beautiful piece of work.