British director Mike Leigh’s latest project “Another Year” is a classic example of what you get when you create good characters and then just let great actors act. It isn’t a film that depends on an intricate or multi-layered plot, nor does it ever pretend to be something it’s not. In many ways this film is an observation.
As it’s title suggests, the movie follows a year in the life of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri Hepple (Ruth Sheen), an older couple who have been married for years and still have a relationship rooted in their unwavering love for one another. On the surface watching an older married couple for a year may not sound all that entertaining, but as we are introduced to some of Tom and Gerri’s friends and family, Leigh quickly shows us the power of the couple’s stability.
Mary (Lesley Manville) is a middle-aged divorcee and co-worker of Gerri’s. She’s impulsive, overly chatty, a bit neurotic, and her life seems to have no direction. Ken (Peter Wight) is an old school friend of Tom’s who is a compulsive eater, an alcoholic, and is unhappy with how his life has turned out. Ronnie (David Bradley) is Tom’s introverted brother who is dealing with the recent death of his wife as well as his fractured relationship with his self-absorbed son. Each of these people with their own set of problems but who find an almost cathartic peace in the Hepple’s home.
I found this film to be a mesmerizing study of family and a testemant to the influence of love, compassion, and devotion. It’s a film centered around a firm and stable marriage, a rare thing to see in movies these days, that doesn’t depict it as stuffy or old-fashioned. While their wonderful relationship in many ways accentuates the flaws in the other characters, Leigh does a fantastic job portraying the Hepple’s as caring and sympathetic. They are impossible to dislike and their marriage is seen as something the audience and characters should envy.
Leigh really lets his actors go and the result is a film that feels genuine and authentic. Leigh’s unique style of character development employs dedicated one-on-one time with the actors and plenty of improvisation prior to the completion of the script. This approach seems to really connect the actors to the characters and it shows throughout the film. The dialogue is fluid and natural and it’s almost impossible not to be drawn in by the numerous kitchen table and back yard discussions. In fact at times I felt as if I was sitting at the table with them listening as each actor lose themselves in their character.
It’s hard to find many flaws in this movie. I did think it was a tad too long and it seemed to get just a little sluggish in the middle of the film. I was also a little frustrated at the ending. Granted, it allows the viewer to come up with their own conclusions and develop for themselves where one particular character is heading. But I had become so completely invested in these people that I didn’t want it to end on such a quick and abrupt note. Is that really a reasonable gripe or is it the byproduct of a great director selling his characters perfectly?
There is so much more that could be said about this picture. I could mention Leigh’s subtle but effective camera work or I could talk more of the great individual performances (I didn’t even mention Oliver Maltman who brilliantly plays the Hepple’s 30 year old son). But instead I’ll just say “Another Year” is a great film. It won’t resonate with those who restrict their movie tastes to fast paced action pictures or contrived and unfunny modern comedies. But I found “Another Year” to be intelligent, witty, touching, and most importantly real. I’ll take that from my movies any day.