We, the Living
By Eric Hynes

Another Year
Dir. Mike Leigh, UK, Sony Pictures Classics

In Mike Leigh’s Another Year, four seasons come and go, characters arrive and depart, produce ripens and rots, everything and nothing changes. There's such weariness in that title. Living is shadowed by dying, bounty is turned over by hunger, loneliness is assuaged by company. People can’t go on, yet they still do. They fret through Sunday night to board the train on Monday morning.

Of a piece with Leigh’s films past yet more formally ambitious, his latest works on the level of closely observed portraiture but also as cinematic fugue and metaphysical lament. It begins with a lonely middle-aged woman isolated in the frame and ends with another woman similarly solitary. Neither is actually alone—other characters sit just outside of the image’s boundaries—but by singling them out Leigh’s camera serves as a blunt weapon of articulation. Another Year is bound to alienate viewers who already feel that Leigh’s characters lean toward caricature, and to reward those who see in those potentially cringe-inducing portraits a true refraction of human behavior. Even for loyal members of the latter camp such as myself, there are moments when characters in Another Year seem too much like ants under a magnifying glass. Yet even these are inextricable from Leigh’s overall project—his gazes may be too long sustained, but they’re always gazes of intent and purpose. There’s sincerity in the filmmaker’s cynicism, and meaning in his scrutiny. Like the Coen Brothers did with last year’s career summation, A Serious Man, Leigh uses his latest to express a grimness that’s no pose, but a philosophy. You don’t have to subscribe to the filmmaker’s view of the world in order to realize that it’s one worth wrestling with.

Leigh lays down a baseline of contentment in Another Year in the form of loving couple Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerrie (Ruth Sheen), then surrounds them with all manner of achy, breaky unrest. Tom’s a geologist who contemplates the mysteries of the earth and the shifting ground beneath the city, while Gerrie is a medical counselor for the state, patiently coaxing emotions from steely punters. He wears a dignified salt and pepper beard and flashes wry smiles from his eyes, while she has kind saucer eyes, long white hair that extends below a long neck, that along with a soft chin and soothing demeanor recalls a sexagenarian Big Bird. Both pushing 60, they live in a pleasant outer London house and lovingly tend to a nearby allotment, where they grow fruit, vegetables, and flowers, and where Leigh’s four-part, four-season structure is delicately and organically visualized. The earth cycles through spring, summer, fall, and winter, and the movie follows.

When we first see Tom and Gerrie together they’re loading a trunk with gardening goodies and working their plot of land. Spring rains come and send them huddling under an awning to sit happily and sip tea. Rather than set the audience up for a fall, Leigh keeps their relationship solid and warm throughout (while yet tracking subtle tensions and emotional shifts). Not so for most everyone else they know. Soon we’re introduced to Mary (Lesley Manville), Gerrie’s bubbly, charmingly chattery old friend and coworker. Grabbing a drink with Gerrie after work, she nervously twirls her red hair and scans the room a touch too eagerly for handsome, unattached men. That Saturday she shows up at Tom and Gerrie’s dressed up for a party even though she’s the only guest. She battles third-wheel blues, turns her hosts’ happiness into self-laceration, and shifts every conversation back to herself. After a night of patient and warm tolerance, and after Mary gloomily passes out on the guest bed, her hosts exchange notions of pity. “She gets worse,” Gerrie says. “Um-hm,” Tom agrees. “Desperate.” In the morning she takes forever to leave.

Leigh introduces a new main character with each season, and for a summertime cookout it’s Tom’s forlorn and obese old friend Ken (Peter Wright), who swills beer, eats to excess, and lunges after Mary. Though a sad sack of his own, it’s still Mary that we pity the most. This is perhaps because, unlike Ken’s dumpy resignation (he wears a “Less Thinking…More Drinking” t-shirt at the party), she’s still trying so hard. It’s also why, despite everyone’s impatience, Mary’s impossible to dismiss; why, despite Leigh’s unrelenting camera and Manville’s devastatingly naked performance, Mary retains dignity despite her undignified behavior, which includes throwing herself at Tom and Gerrie’s single son, Joe (Oliver Maltman). You can pity her desperation, but you can’t discount it. As much as we’re invited to see Mary through her hosts’ eyes, to endure and even judge her lack of tact, our revulsion is fueled by identification. Her loneliness is a painful, unwelcome reminder of our own.

Fall arrives, and so again does Mary, this time to sabotage Joe’s triumphant unveiling of his new girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez), whose youthful buoyancy stands as a direct threat to both Mary’s scene-stealing personality and her ongoing Joe-crush. She shoots down Katie’s every pleasantry, mortifies Joe, and doesn’t realize that Gerrie and Tom have lost all patience with her. When the night ends, they give her the cold shoulder and effectively banish her from the hearth. In winter she shows up at their doorstep uninvited like a cold, mangy cat, grief-stricken and bewildered from exile. To Gerrie’s grim reprimands she responds with apologies and entreaties. “As long as we’re friends I’m all right,” she says, offering an ominous, double-edged threat. Therapist Gerrie wants her to get help, and there’s little reason to question her professional judgment. But treatment can only help her cope. In the end she’ll still be alone, stumbling around for somebody to love.

Justly celebrated for his distinctive, acting-intensive, improvisation-based approach to conceiving, plotting and writing films, Leigh doesn’t receive enough credit as an image-maker. Though also an accomplished playwright, he doesn’t merely stage performances for the screen. Where he places the camera, when he chooses to move it, and when and how he chooses to cut are always integral to his establishment of character, setting, and meaning. Like in the films of John Cassavetes, performance is so central to Leigh’s project that it’s easy to overlook how his performances are literally shaped by the frame. For Another Year, Leigh and longtime DP Dick Pope (they’ve collaborated on every feature since 1990’s Life Is Sweet) develop four distinct looks and visual strategies for each of the four seasons: spring and fall are suitably neutral in both palette and approach, receding through medium close-ups and reverse shots; Mary’s youthful pink hoodie invades summer’s greenery, and Leigh stages scenes with minimal cuts, evoking Secrets and Lies’ long takes of familial activity; and for winter Leigh employs a bleached, high contrast style, and shows a preference for negative space that recalls Naked. Yet there’s just as much modulation within each section of Another Year—even within a single scene or on the singular, miraculous faces of Broadbent or Manville—tonally shifting from humor to heartbreak, optimism to mourning, melancholy to terror, sometimes within a single scene.

The most jarring shift occurs between fall and winter—as well it might—as a death and its aftermath harshly realizes otherwise merely creeping mortal fears. We come to know Tom’s brother, Ronnie (David Bradley), only as a widower, after the adult life as he’s known it has been altered irreparably. The clamorous talk of previous sections here dissipates into stunned silence, with Ronnie wordlessly, watchfully staring into the middle distance. His grief looks blank but is subtly unbearable. “I don’t know what to do,” is his only complete expressed thought, at once addressing his living situation, his angry, seemingly homicidal son (considering the context, Martin Savage’s explosive few minutes of screen time are some of the most unbearably tense you’ll ever see), his devastating loss, and the true state of being suddenly made tragically clear.

A lovely symmetry occurs when Ronnie meets Mary, but Leigh doesn’t press too hard on their connection. He’s pleased to be distracted by her madness, and she comforts herself with thoughts of comforting him. But Leigh’s camera still reserves the right to isolate. It keeps reminding us of our fate, held off by precious, passing moments of comfort, distraction, laughter, romance. “It’s really lovely to have someone to talk to,” Mary says, and a placid Ronnie agrees. It may not count for much, but it’s just about everything in the end.