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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Pick of the Week, New. Another Year.

 Another Year (Also Two-disc Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Combo) (Four Stars)

U.K.: Mike Leigh, 2010. (Sony Pictures Classics)

Another Year, from Mike Leigh is  another look at the Britain he‘s chronicled so powerfully and memorably since his first feature, Bleak Moments in 1971. It’s a rich humane work about people and classes, friendship and anguish, marriage and loneliness: a movie that catches you up, transfixes, moves you — that moved me, at the end, to that last stop right before tears, a moment that can be  more melancholy, more wounding, more hurtful than tears.

Like all the best Leigh, this movie, focusing on a small group of people in a simple setting that suggests the familiarity and complexity of the everyday, gives you a piercing illusion of human reality: real-looking, real-acting, real-reacting people in an unforgettable series of mid-life crises. It‘s another classic-to-be, I think.

Why is such a good bet for classic status? Leigh (Naked, Secrets & Lies) directed it. And wrote it (with his cast, in his famous creative rehearsal process). So, as you’d expect, it‘s a movie for all those among us who like drama and movies that mirror the world around us, and who want more reality and reflcetion from our movies.

Leigh, the master of the seemingly improvised movie, and of the Brit-Chekhovian ensemble, the genius of the realistic contemporary British social drama, once again crafts us a sometimes funny, often sad drama full of sympathetic, tough, compassionate truth — a film full of sensitivity and humanity, comic like Life is Sweet, comic-sad like Secrets & Lies, and sad-sad like Vera Drake.

Leigh and his marvelous actors create a little world of working class-born people sliding from middle toward old age — some of them happily, some miserably — but all of them chained by the eternal British class system. These people, more obviously in some ways than a similar bunch in America, are ruled by money, social class or educational opportunity: all those systems that relentlessly and unfairly divide people into haves and have-nots.

In Another Year, Leigh takes us, just like the great Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi, through four seasons, from Spring to Winter, in four increasingly bleak acts, guided by another top-notch acting ensemble. The ensemble revolves around some familiar Leigh faces: Jim Broadbent (Life is Sweet, Topsy-Turvy) and Ruth Sheen (High Hopes) as the blissfully content, supremely well-ordered suburban couple geologist Tom and counselor Gerri, two happy people with an upwardly mobile son (Oliver Maltman).

The couple, center of their little universe, remain loyal to two old friends now fallen on booze and hard emotional times, who keep popping in: chubby and romantically luckless bachelor Ken (Peter Wight), and fading party girl and reveler Mary (Lesley Manville, of Topsy-Turvy). Also in the group: David Bradley as Tom’s quiet and melancholy old brother Ronnie, bereaved and still trapped in the class Tom left behind.

 They’re all excellent, but Manville is really extraordinary. The last shot of her in this movie, the way her face seems to have finally dropped into permanent sadness, the last blighted bit-end of her dreams, is devastating. So is the movie’s first scene, which undermines the seeming later contentment of Tom and Gerri, by starting us off with a shocking view of one of Gerri‘s hapless clients. The great Imelda Staunton (who was unforgettable as Leigh’s Vera Drake) gives us an unsmiling, bottomlessly sad woman trapped in such a merciless vise of circumstance, that she cannot imagine any improvement on her life — except a different life. Or maybe a death.

Staunton’s first scene sets us up for the grief that lies underneath this film’s initial comedy and amiable drama — and Manville builds on it. What she creates for Another Year, as Mary, is a woman who’s a victim of ageism, of alcohol, and also of her own continuing blasted optimism and unreal expectations. Once a local bombshell of sorts, certainly someone who had her suitors for a while, Mary still seems to believe she is, or can be, saved by her looks, and that sexual attraction and flirtiness can be the hot-wire that moves her out of her life doldrums. (She’s cold though herself, when she gets an approach from the equally lonely Ken.)

Tom and Gerri, whom she pesters and leans on, and who treat her with kindness but also with condescension, probably represent an ideal for her, a second family. If chubby Tom and slightly bovine-looking Gerri can be so happy, why can‘t she? And why not with Tom and Gerri’s son?

  That’s one of the major questions in Leigh’s films: Why can’t these people be happy?  The answer isn’t always social or political, though Leigh is, here as ever a classic British progressive/leftist. And it doesn’t come from fixed, immutable human nature. Leigh, a great admirer of the supreme Japanese family-drama filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story), simply points his camera (cinematographer Dick Pope’s camera) at these people — at all these wonderful actors who have delved so deeply into the outlines he’s made for them and, with him, created something of such solid truth, such burning compassion.

 He looks at them and makes us commiserate and wonder. Why can’t they be happy? Why can’t we?

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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