Review: ‘Another Year’
Mike Leigh Delivers Another Fine Ensemble
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Another Year"
Filmmaker Mike Leigh has a reputation for creating realistic films about working class England. "Another Year" (opening January 14 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Theaters) serves up another fine ensemble film from Leigh.
British filmmaker Mike Leigh is known for starting projects without a script and enlisting his actors in an intense creative process that requires extensive improvisations to develop characters, then a plot, and finally a script. This process makes the actors collaborators. It also explains why Leigh's films are such brilliant ensemble pieces in which even the most minor character is quickly defined with telling detail.
"Another Year" uses many of Leigh's favorite actors and plays off of his previous films. Once again we have a group of characters whose lives casually intersect, this time through the course of one year. The film opens in the Spring and introduces us to the life-affirming Jeri, played by Ruth Sheen. Jeri is a therapist who meets her polar opposite in a Janet (a somber Imelda Staunton), depressed housewife she's trying to treat.
JERI: On a scale of one to ten, how happy would you say you are?
JERI: What would improve your life?
JANET: A different life.
That scene -- and the film as a whole -- typify the tension between optimism and pessimism that runs throughout Leigh's body of work. Just the titles of his films convey that tension as you go from "Bleak Moments" to "Happy Go Lucky," "Naked" to "Life is Sweet." Leigh loves to place his optimistic characters against a gritty, realistic backdrop. In "Another Year," Jeri's happiness and good marriage are played off of her co-worker Mary, a single woman trying to put a happy face on the dissatisfaction she feels with her life.
MARY: No I'm really comfortable with where I am in my life…
Lesley Manville's finely nuanced performance as Mary has been generating a lot of awards talk. The local San Diego Film Critics Society already bestowed its best supporting actress award on her. And deservedly so. Manville's Mary is almost an emotional cripple. She tries to act bubbly and positive but always sets herself up for failure. She's sweet on Jeri's son Joe but refuses to admit that he's way too young and not interested. Of course she's crushed when Joe turns up one day with a girlfriend. But when one of Jeri's middle-aged friends shows genuine interest in her, Mary is cruelly dismissive. Leigh understands that we are not always rational or behave in a way that's best. He never takes sides or passes judgment but rather suggests that we are all flawed and vulnerable. It's that sense of humanism that makes his films so engaging.
"Another Year" focuses on people at middle age or older, and the film ends with a death. Perhaps the 67-year-old Leigh is growing more conscious of his own mortality and wants to explore characters' that are facing more limited options. But again there's a sense of contrast as he sets these older characters against younger ones like Joe and his girlfriend who are just starting out in their relationship.
TOM: How did you two meet?
JOE: We were both stood up.
That situation could be sad or even traumatic to some but instead Joe and his girlfriend-to-be turn it around, making lemonade out of their lemons. Joe has his parents' good nature and good humor, and those seem to be valuable tools in successfully navigating through life.
"Another Year" tackles Leigh's favorite themes of family, trying to connect, and enjoying happiness wherever you can find it. He has an unobstrusive style of filmmaking. It's not like a documentary but it feels very much like real life. What he's so good at is showing that it's possible to maintain a bright cheery outlook without ignoring the problems of the real world.
Companion viewing: "Naked," "High Hopes," "Life is Sweet"
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