Kitchen sink realism is a sub-genre, if genre is the right word, of drama that portrays the real world as it is in its ordinary (read: sad) moments. The attraction for the creatives is using a direct and pure expression of their lives in (possibly) lower-than-upper-middle class surroundings. For audiences, probably, the attraction is seeing how the other half (read: 98%) live. It’s a particularly British form which is rather preoccupied with issues of class and distinction. Writer-director Mike Leigh is a well-known quantity in this genre and Another Year (2010) an excellent example. Another Year, less concerned with class, tells the story of growing older and the rough banality that another year brings. While on paper, one would surely call this the least appealing film possible for young people, it is probably most productively seen by them. For the serious minded, it is a stark reminder of where to put one’s priorities. Also, a reminder to put the bottle down.
Gerri (Ruth Sheen) is a counselor, like an underpaid therapist, with the perfect English family (with all of its cultural implications). She’s married to Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geological engineer and chronically jovial fellow, and they have a son Joe (Oliver Maltman), who I took to be a barrister (lawyer) for what we’d call Legal Aid. They ask if he’s got a girlfriend, but he’s cagey about it, putting them off with a joke or two. Gerri’s friend Mary (Lesley Manville), is getting on in age and hasn’t been very lucky in relationships. While the word is unkind and probably overused, she is quickly becoming desperate. Tom’s old friend Ken (Peter Wight), who is a caricature of unhealthy living, does not really appeal. Attaching herself to him would be dreadful, though in what way is best known to Mary’s own sub-conscious. Then, when Joe introduces his girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez), things truly begin to unravel.
You can’t help but realize how everything is for young people when you see how different this is from most every other movie. It is commonly said that actresses are dealt an evil hand as their headlining careers will last, at best, into their thirties with only a select few going on to play mothers, grandmothers, and/or villains. The only women whose acting success span the breadth of life were those of incredible talent and luck who seamlessly grew old while no one was looking. The reasoning given is that people just don’t want to see that happen. This movie, and Lesley Manville’s performance in particular, should dispel that. Filmmaking is so easy today that the young are told that they can just pick up their iPhone and make a movie over a weekend. Well if 45-60 year old women did the same, the output would probably be twenty times better if Another Year is anything to go by.
But then, Mike Leigh–not to my knowledge a menopausal woman–has made a phenomenal, inspired film. How it works, I could not really say. It’s like a slightly depressed version of a Richard Curtis movie. Or the English prequel to Amour (2012) (review). About ten minutes into the film, it’s clear there’s going to be a funeral and it was just a matter of picking the deceased. The performances Leigh brings out are superb, certainly–Imelda Staunton‘s five minutes at the start of the film are incredible. It’s also a very beautifully shot film (Dick Pope). But as the screenwriter and the director, he brings out emotions and reactions that aren’t often portrayed. The characters, even the most likeable ones, aren’t actively perfect. They aren’t heroes. They usually do the right thing and acknowledge when they do the wrong thing, but don’t go much further. Each plays the role of an observer at one point or another.
If you think about other comic dramas–and I forgot to mention how funny the film can be–there’s usually one classically English person, almost always a man outside of Jane Austen adaptations, who is our guide. We see it all through his point of view and respond with his sympathies. In Another Year, each character plays the listener while the other(s) reveal themselves. The curtness with which Tom treats his nephew, the coldness with which Gerri sometimes responds to Mary’s aching distress, and all so passively. A cast of passive characters isn’t supposed to work. There has to be someone to drive the action. Someone with a goal or obstacle to overcome. The driver of this film is time. And time drives us all. It just needs a little English charm to make it infinitely watchable.
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