Sunday, 14 November 2010

Another Year

When that anguished, unflattering close-up fills the screen, rippling with undercurrents of sorrow, melancholy, happiness and joy, you know you're firmly within Mike Leigh territory. And when you find yourself reacting not to the actor but instead to the mass of human contradictions and feelings, you know it's a Mike Leigh venture that works. Another Year is just such a film, standing alongside the director's best in exposing the ripples and channels found in human interaction through his famous largely improvised/partly scripted approach.

More Secrets and Lies than Happy Go Lucky, it unfolds at a gentle pace (it would seem positively deathly if the screenplay didn't ring with so many truths), to the strains of Gary Yershon's lovely, pastoral score, detailing a year in the lives of happily married Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen). The former a geologist and the latter a councillor, both enjoy a rock solid marriage, content with tending their allotment in all weathers, making dinner and slurping tea. By contrast, the friends, colleagues and relatives surrounding them experience crises, fluctuations and unhappiness.

Chief among the bleary eyed is Lesley Manville, and the actress instantly takes her place among the classic Leigh creations. Feeding hungrily off Leigh's extensive improv period, Manville pares the rawness of near-alcoholic Mary down the to quick, a jittery, jerky mess of a woman, who, like many of the director's characters, threatens to spill into overwrought caricature. But such is her and Leigh's skill that she boasts all the draw and wonder of a top level CGI effect: a turbulent mass of sadness and faux-enthusiasm that is at once infuriating, grating and deeply moving.

If Manville is the soul, then Broadbent and Sheen are the heart, infusing a sense of a full, active and happy marriage in every gesture, hug and vocal inflection. Much of the dynamism is implicit of course - and this is the magic of Mike Leigh's cinema. Extracting a welter of home truths from nothing more than a strong cuppa shared between friends, his films of course stem from that classic British socio-realist tradition of showing things as they are. Be it a stubbly, unshaven visage or that swiftly quaffed gulp of wine, Leigh's films are alive with human compassion. It's all in the body language and framing, a clash of eye lines, a gap in space that reverberates with unspoken yearning.

And through a crisp mise-en-scene and subtle colour palate, those high notes are altered to fit a more sombre key, the warmth of spring and summer developing into heart-wrenching, unspoken sadness, exposing the previously latent melancholia and laying it bare. It boasts more magic than the computer-generated majesty of Avatar, breathlessly transforming into a thrilling expose of warmth and despair, rounded out by an excellent support cast including Peter Wight, David Bradley and Oliver Maltman. Just like Tom and Gerri's perennial allotment, the down home truths of Another Year are a modest but crucial reminder that real life holds its own brand of transcendent wonder.

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