The title and premise of Mike Leigh's latest film, Another Year, suggests the potential for a lagging, meandering, and weightless slice of life. It's the sort of film that could have easily sunk into tedium, especially considering its two hour run time and very limited plot/story. And yet through a key stylistic difference (I'll explain in a minute) and a strong group of performances, Another Year turns out to be one of the director's finest, and this is coming from someone who isn't exactly a fan of his.
Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) are a happily married couple living in the London area, and over the course of the film (broken up into four segments; one for each season), we see them interact with various friends and relatives, usually at a meal or outing. Yet the film doesn't begin with Tom or Gerri. An entire first scene goes by without either of the two appearing, and the focus of the scene is on a woman who only appears once more (in the very next scene) in the entire film (Imelda Staunton). On the other end of things, the film concludes with a lingering shot on someone other than Tom or Gerri as well. I bring this up because it plays into the strange discussion that has dominated talk of the film's awards season prospects: is actress Lesley Manville - as Tom and Gerri's friend Mary - in a leading or supporting role. Judging the film based on how it begins and ends, I got the sense that while Tom and Gerri ground the film, they aren't exactly the leads (at least not the primary leads). We may not see Mary at home or by herself, but she's the character we get to know best over the course of the film.
Either way, it's a shame that Manville has been largely overlooked over the course of awards season, because her work here stands among the best of the year, lead or supporting. Mary may not exactly have her life together (as evidenced by the jumpy manner in which she moves and talks), but Manville is careful not to take the performance to the point where she becomes annoying or exhausting. And part of this is, perhaps, due to one of the key changes that Leigh seems to have made in this film: he's either cut down on improvisation, or his direction and his actors have made their improvisation less obvious. So even though the film may still feel a little long in some parts (the final section, Winter, goes on just a little too long), the film has the overall feeling of being better constructed and less open than much of Leigh's previous work.
This is also, in large part, due to the strength of the performances. Manville may be the MVP here, but she's beautifully backed up by Broadbent and Sheen, along with smaller turns from David Bradley (AKA Mr. Filch from Harry Potter) and a stunning cameo performance from Imelda Staunton. Staunton in particular nails her two scenes at the film's beginning as a woman whose situation, though never specified, is in shambles. Despite the bleak nature of her scenes, she's one of the supporting characters you wish that Leigh would bring back in. Alas, that might have proven to be too much, and would have weighed down the film's happier segments (Spring and Summer).
But this is where we come to one of the problems with the film. Despite the general quiet warmth of the film, at times it does seem a little condescending. Everyone around Tom and Gerri is usually a mess of some sort, and they're all single, whether through divorce (Mary) or death (Tom's brother). The film seems to treat Tom and Gerri as slightly superior to everyone else simply because they're a happy couple, as though the only way to achieve happiness and stability in life is to be with someone. It's not a glaring issue, but it rears its head enough times to make it somewhat noticeable. The last shot also seems to reinforce this (while simultaneously evoking Mary as actually being the film's lead). For Tom and Gerri, the course of the film really does depict just another year, but for people like Mary, it depicts another year of loneliness and dissatisfaction.
Thankfully this is an issue that never becomes so prominent as to drag down the entire film. Leigh's writing, while a times a little drawn out, is effective at showing the connections among his characters, and his actors do a strong job of projecting a sense of camaraderie. And while it may not be as heartwarming as it's been advertised, it rings true enough in the right places to remain effective without becoming hopeless or bleak. And despite its title, it certainly deserves to be given a chance, because this is more than just Another Mike Leigh Film; it's one of his best.