“Life’s not always kind,” a character observes in “Another Year,” and the shopworn but resonant phrase exactly captures the film’s melancholy but forgiving message. Helmer Mike Leigh’s latest contempo, North London-set drama about an interconnected set of family and friends is almost about nothing at all, and yet it gently juxtaposes the big issues of everyday life: loneliness and love, selfishness and kindness, birth and death. Arguably Leigh’s tautest, most likable effort since “Secrets and Lies,” pic could have a good year and perform along lines of his last, “Happy-Go-Lucky” — perhaps even better with the right handling.
Nearing retirement age, geologist Tom (Jim Broadbent) and psychological counselor Gerri (Ruth Sheen, both regular Leigh collaborators) have a deeply contented marriage. Their son Joe (Oliver Maltman), a lawyer who works with the poor, is all grown up but still close to them. Although Joe’s parents fret in a low-key way that he still hasn’t settled down with a partner, few troubles disturb their happy routines, which include pottering in their garden and having friends over for homemade curry.
Divorcee Mary (Lesley Manville) is one such regular guest — perhaps a little too regular for Tom’s liking. A receptionist at the doctor’s office where Gerri works, Mary dresses in girlish, trendy gear, though she is only slightly younger than Gerri and probably well past child-bearing years; her chirpy, optimistic manner barely disguises an underlying despair, exacerbated by alcoholic tendencies. She’s become so desperate for a partner, she’s even begun to flirt with Joe, yet she won’t even consider Tom’s schlubby childhood friend Ken (Peter Wight) as a possible romantic option, even though they’re both roughly the same age, single and share a taste for booze.
As the plot unfolds over the course of a year, each season marked by titles, Mary slides deeper into despondency, especially after Joe hooks up with Katie (Karina Fernandez), an occupational therapist Gerri instantly likes. Manville exquisitely plays the scene where Mary and Katie first meet, as the camera captures the very instant her heart breaks, perhaps for good, in a tight close-up.
With its ring of fatalism, the pic’s title almost sounds like an admission that this is business as usual for Leigh: Here’s another cadre of decent but flawed ordinary folk, enduring life’s disappointments, social embarrassments and fleeting moments of happiness. It would seem the director’s used the same working method as before, sculpting the script through extended improvisations with his cast to arrive at a narrative that springs almost entirely from character.
Consequently, each Leigh film rests heavily on the ensemble chosen, and here the chemistry between thesps distills pure dramatic magic. No one is a caricature (a flaw that marred the otherwise excellent “Naked,” for instance), and nobody is excessively, provocatively annoying (as key characters were in “Happy-Go-Lucky” or “Life Is Sweet”). Here, the cast all speak in that distinctive sing-songy yet monotonous way Leigh characters always talk, rattling through streams of generic small-talk that’s all the more believable for its very banality. But the harmonies are subtler this time, the register more hushed and autumnal (even in the pic’s “Spring” and “Summer” episodes).
Broadbent and Sheen’s performances are like perfectly timed drum and bass lines anchoring a great jazz jam. They manage the rare feat of making a happily married couple not just likable but interesting. They’re no saints — Tom is a bit too quick to anger and Gerri has that streak of prissy self-righteousness so often seen in shrinks — but like so many of Leigh’s protagonists, they’re essentially good, decent folk. Manville’s perf seems a touch affected at first, but eventually her mannered quality fits flush with Mary’s own playacting. Although these three have the most screen time, the rest of the ensemble is fairly apportioned time to shine, which all do brightly, through not only dialogue but also choices in body language and physical gestures as precise as those in ballet.
Tech credits are unobtrusively pro, although special mention is due to regular Leigh alum Dick Pope’s emotionally intelligent lensing, and pitch-perfect production and costume design from Simon Beresford and Jacqueline Durran, respectively. Score by Gary Yershon, featuring lots of harps and oboe, is effective, if a little on-the-nose at times.