MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

TIFF Review: Another Year

Mike Leigh is one of those rare directors you can almost always count on to deliver something good, interesting and completely original. His latest film, Another Year, is tonally very different from the last film he had at Toronto, Happy-Go-Lucky, (actually, to be more precise, I’d say it’s tonally different from much of his previous work, but as accessible to the audience as Happy-Go-Lucky was).

Another Year certainly bears that Mike Leigh stamp of filmmaking that makes it all look deceptively easy. It’s a bit of a misconception that Leigh’s films are completely improvised; there is nothing in his films that is there by accident. He starts, always, with the characters, and works closely with his cast over a period of months in fleshing them out.

From the characters evolves their lives, from the lives evolves their story — which is, isn’t it, pretty much exactly how our own lives work. Once that task is done and the characters are born, so to speak, and the story hammered out, though, a very tight script is written. What you see on the screen in the finished film isn’t improvisation that happened in front of the camera, then, but is the result of a carefully controlled improvisational process that led to a tight, well-developed script.

Perhaps this explains why the characters in Leigh’s films tend to feel both real and fully realized; one can sense the track of the entire life of the characters in the years that have passed in their imaginary existence: all the steps and missteps, the decisions and indecisions, that have led them to the time and place in which we are given a window into their stories. And perhaps this is also why unwieldy exposition tends not to be a problem in his films. When it’s dramatically necessary for us to have some context for a particular thing, that information is always given us in the natural course of the characters relating to each other.

In Another Year, the trio of characters whose lives we get a glimpse of are Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a counselor at a hospital, her friend and co-worker Mary (Lesley Manville) and Gerri’s husband Tom (Jim Broadbent). (Vera Drake‘s Imelda Staunton is also on hand in an almost cameo-brief appearance at the film’s opening, which serves as a bit of a preamble for the story to come)

Gerri and Tom are, to loveless, lonely Mary, the “perfect couple” of the sort she herself longs to be a part of. Mary makes a lot of bad decisions, particularly around relationships, and she and Gerri’s friendship seems to rely almost entirely on Mary leaning on her friend as a pseudo-counselor support system.

Where Mary is all big gestures and fast talking to hide from her loneliness, Gerri, who’s secure in her relationship with Tom, is quieter, and tends to offer advice that’s perhaps more pragmatic than a friend i trouble wants to hear. Mary, for her part, lives vicariously through Gerri and Tom, their cozy, comfortable life and relationship. She loves their house, she loves being invited to dinner. She’s all effusive, needy hugs and chatter, but under that sometimes unnerving surface, she is desperately unhappy and lonely.

All the performances in this film (as they tend to be in Leigh’s films) are just outstanding. Sheen and Broadbent feel to us as though they have the connection of a long-time happily married couple; they exchange volumes of information with a single glance or touch in the way that married couples do, and they are a delight to watch.

Manville, though, (who previously worked with Leigh in Vera Drake and Topsy-Turvy) is amazing here. I felt tremendously emotionally connected to Mary as a character; the pain that lurks always under the surface of Mary’s bubbly, babbling effusiveness is palpable, at times excrutiatingly so. She’s a fascinating, layered character, and this is, really, an Oscar-nom worthy performance, as Sally Hawkins‘ was in Happy-Go-Lucky. And you can quote me on that.

As I said before, nothing in a Mike Leigh film is there by accident, and that is true of the recurring physical feature of the film, the garden plot allotment that Gerri and Tom have, where we see them working through the film’s seasonal segments of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Their garden is both literal and symbolic; their bountiful harvest provides fresh vegetables for the many meals Gerri and Tom prepare for Mary and others (including equally lonely friend Ken, Tom’s bereaved brother Ronnie, a group of friends at a barbecue party, and their son Joe and his girlfriend.

The garden, though, is also representative of something more, in that it reflects the them of the cycle of life that flows throughout the film. Leigh guides us through the story with his usual sure, deft direction, and the end result are characters and a story that is every bit as richly varied and bountiful as Gerri and Tom’s garden. Another Year is an absolute delight, a highlight of the fest for me, and I expect other folks who are fans of his work will find it enjoyable as well.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon