By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Another Year is another Mike Leigh movie, which means two hours of hearing mundane English people speak ordinary, inadvertently profound words. If his characters' anguish isn't interesting — and often it isn't for me — Leigh's slices of humdrum life quickly grow stale.
Another Year is another story, not as buoyant as Leigh's 2008 foray into something like sunny cinema with Happy-Go-Lucky, but not a total downer either.
It is anchored by Lesley Manville's brilliant portrayal of an ideal Leigh character, a 50ish woman named Mary whose personality imposes on everyone around her. She seems immune to happiness, drinks and smokes too much, and overestimates her appeal to younger men.
Yet there's something about Mary, who is not as repellent as she deserves to be. Most of it is reflected by Manville's extraordinarily controlled emotional crumble. Her dialogue is chiefly small talk, as Leigh prefers, but Manville says more with a crestfallen expression or a tiny rise in her inflection than a monologue could. This is a performance that deserved an Oscar nomination.
Leigh made the academy's honor roll in the original-screenplay category, which after five such nominations makes a topic of his unorthodox procedure.
He begins production without a script, conducting months of improvisational rehearsal with actors encouraged to create their characters, even beyond the movie. Wherever they go within a general outline is what winds up on the page. The result is Leigh's signature naturalism, performed with richly informed understatement.
Like Blue Valentine — the closest to a Leigh film that any American made lately — these depressing, sometimes dull bits and pieces of intersecting lives can be fascinating. Or not. There is no conventional arc to Another Year, only a convenient division into seasonal chapters. The story revolves around a contented couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), who tolerate Mary until her insecurities go too far.
Over the course of the year Mary spirals from feeble expressions of high hopes to Leigh's striking final shot, a portrait of isolation amid fragile friendship. The romance she pines for winds up in rejections, hers of the pathetically suitable match Ken (Peter Wight), and painful resignation to the fact that she won't date Tom and Gerri's son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), nearly half her age.
"Life's not always kind, is it?" Gerri says offhand to Mary about something else entirely. But it's a line that echoes throughout Another Year, as it could in most of Leigh's movies. I'm not sure there's anything else to take away from this film besides Manville's performance and gratitude that we aren't these people.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.