9 December 2010

Mid-Class Crisis- ANOTHER YEAR Review

Looking through Mike Leigh's filmography, I haven't found a single thing I've seen. I've found a lot of films I want to see, like Topsy Turvy, Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky, but I wouldn't think it unfair to say that Leigh doesn't reach a huge audience in terms of distribution. Not to dismiss anything just because I haven't seen any of his films, but because nobody has been telling me that I should have. Except for Another Year, which proves that Leigh can connect with audiences on a better level than mere cinema distribution.

Against the grain of most kitchen sink realist dramas, the central figures in Another Year are Tom and Gerri (geddit?), a perfectly happy middle-aged couple. He isn't cheating on her, she doesn't have any terminal disease- it's the people who surround the blissfully married pair that seem to have all the problems. The film takes place over four seasons, charting Tom and Gerri's interactions with their bachelor son Joe, alcoholic Ken and desperately lonely Mary.

As a film, it's quite aggressively genteel at times, to the point of being over-powering. In many respects, it can be compared to Tamara Drewe, but with all of the bawdy comic shenanigans that characterised that film. It does also take place over four seasons though, and the middle-aged middle class contentment is a Guardian reader's delight. The difference is not that Another Year feels more worthy, but that it's generally more substantial.

I can't deny that it made me cringe a couple of times, particularly when we see just how bloody contented Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen play Tom and Gerri. That's not to say it's poorly acted or that Tom and Gerri are weak characters. Not at all, it's merely that people that happy and twee often make me cringe in real life too, and how great it is to see a film tipped for awards contention in which we get great performances based on positivity, rather than overcoming adversity or being utterly riddled with depression and sadness. Broadbent continues to prove himself a national treasure and Sheen makes a big impression even if she's sidelined as the film goes on.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that it's not all based in positivity. Most prominently of the lonely acquaintances who visit Tom and Gerri over their year, you have Lesley Manville giving it all she's got as Mary. Her performance is almost so powerful as to obscure everything else, working the semi-improvised method acting to her huge advantage and utterly burying you in her character's story. Mary's is the most sympathetic part of the film, and also the most compelling. If I were a betting man... hell, I'm becoming a betting man, just so I can make as much money as I can from what's sure to be short odds on Manville taking home acting awards from here to the Kodak Theatre.

The film rambles on a little- its 125 minute runtime works out at about half an hour per season. Without the connector of Mary's desperation, it might seem a little episodic. It continues to play with its premise and characters though- at a later point in the film, we get to see the class divide more clearly with the arrival of the excellent David Bradley as Tom's brother, who lives a long way from the middle class contentment we've been pitched into thus far. However, with the main characters being so utterly content, you can generally tell that unless Leigh let the cast improvise a dramatic turn, like a bloody tram crash or something, nothing bad is going to befall Tom and Gerri.

I realise that this comes in the same week as I sort of panned Monsters for cutting loose with the script and improvising most of the film, but somewhere along the line, Mike Leigh has nailed how to do that in a way that resonates with me. Gareth Edwards might one day manage the same, but at present, it's not particularly satisfying to see his film and the more overtly Oscar friendly period piece The King's Speech sweeping up at the British Independent Film Awards this week, while Another Year didn't really get the love it deserves.

When we leave behind the characters of Another Year, many of them haven't moved from where they were at the beginning. But you wouldn't call 2010 a waste of time if you realise in a few weeks' time that you haven't crossed an infected zone, gone looking for your dad in savage mountain country or stopped a runaway train since January. You would still have grown, and as dramatic as the film is, with all of its great performances, its strength lies in how very real it feels. It's not the film you want to see every week at the multiplex, but once or twice a year, it's a very precious thing.

Another Year is still showing in selected cinemas nationwide, and arrives on DVD on 28th February 2011.
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If you've seen Another Year, why not share your comments below? If you're keeping up with the Tom and Gerri gag, join me in lobbying for the Itchy and Scratchy rendition of the film- would be a sight to behold, I think.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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