Stories of aging, loneliness and despair typically don't translate into crowdpleasers, but there's nothing typical about a Mike Leigh movie. With "Another Year," a skillfully understated character study from the master of subtext, Leigh magnifies the existential reflections of his middle-aged subjects, eschewing plot for mere observation and stuffing emotional realism into near-theatrical constraints. Smoothly oscillating from comedy to crisis with an unparalleled eye for naturalism, Leigh once again puts intangible feelings in the spotlight and -- using brilliant finesse -- makes them funny and profound.
Moving up the age spectrum from his last outing, "Happy-Go-Lucky," the director focuses on Tom and Gerri (get it?), played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as a stable couple presumably living comfortably within the confines of their annual patterns. They both make stable livings, Tom as a geologist and Mary as a medical counsellor. Each season, they play host to a series of regular faces. Among them: Joe (Oliver Matlman), their 30-year-old unmarried son; Mary (Lesley Manville), Gerri's co-worker, longtime pal and perennially dissatisfied single gal; Ken (Peter Wight), an overweight booze hound. Leigh builds their personalities over a series of seasonal encounters that form the backbone of the movie. The story boldly sticks almost exclusively to the restraints of their home, leaving other developments offscreen so they emerge only through a combination of dialogue and the viewer's imagination.
Plot is virtually an afterthought. The ritualistic gatherings of these smart, well-to-do characters provide constant charm and insight for the simple reason that they exist in highly credible terms. Mary, a seemingly unending trainwreck in progress, offers the prime sources of both comedy and discontent. In each seasonal meet, her alternately overactive and crestfallen behaviors ruin the illusion of contentment. It's like Sally Hawkins's Poppy in "Happy-Go-Lucky" grew old and discovered self-doubt.
While the mood undulates, Leigh retains thematic focus. If the basic ideas of "Another Year" are as rudimentary as its shrug of a title, he manages to scrutinize them through the varying strength of his performers. Mary harbors an outrageous fantasy of seducing young Joe, an ambition that rises and falls in the sunken wrinkles of her endlessly droopy face. Tom and Gerri tolerate her breakdowns just as they cope with Joe's perpetual need to get married and Ken's physical discomfort, disarming them with charm and hospitality.
In ordinary dramatic circumstances, this would give rise to sentimental mush, but Leigh appears more intent on highlighting the repetitive nature of adult socializing -- implying that the redundancy of the get-togethers reminds everyone of the life cycle they remain eternally trapped within. The title implies that the movie is both sequel and prequel to the endless customs of life experience.
Like its framing device, "Another Year" pushes ideas that are bluntly fundamental, but that alone taps into its universal appeal. Everything lacks certainty because nobody has it all figured out. "Live life while you can," says Mary, of all people, suggesting that she has already lost her chance to do just that.
Aided by cinematographer Dick Pope's expressive color schemes, the story moves from the warmth of summer to the chills of winter with a purely cinematic eye. Despite the smallness of his approach, Leigh's portrait does succeed in movie terms, relying on nuanced performances held in thoughtful close-ups and suggestive pauses. In its broadest sense, "Another Year" is a rumination on mortality, moving from scenes of insatiable longing to the finality of death. Leigh's outlook may have its moments of bleakness, but his latest outing finds comfort and insight in routine by existing within it.