Nothing really happens in Mike Leigh’s latest, “Another Year” – nothing extraordinary, at least.
As the title suggests, the film follows the usual comings and goings, ups and downs that transpire over four seasons among a longtime happily married couple, their family and friends.
And yet everything is fully realized and superbly crafted; the sense of intimacy Leigh creates as writer and director is never broken, for better and for worse.
“Another Year” feels as organic and authentic as the vegetables its lead characters, husband and wife Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), grow in a community garden. It reveals the players’ connections effortlessly, and with the naturalistic dialogue that is among the filmmaker’s trademarks.
But it can also be unrelentingly bleak, which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one who’s a fan of Leigh’s work.
The character at the center of “Another Year,” Lesley Manville’s Mary, is a high-energy bundle of neediness and desire, constantly striving to connect, desperate for human contact.
Whether she’s complaining about the car she just bought or babbling about the inane plans she’ll never carry out, she feels wholly real. And while she spends a lot of time at Tom and Gerri’s comfortable home, you wouldn’t want to spend a whole lot of time with her.
It’s an annoying character, but Manville – a theater veteran whose previous films with Leigh include “Topsy-Turvy” and “All or Nothing” – is so good, she makes you feel sorry for her.
While Mary gets drunk and weepy at Tom and Gerri’s house in the spring, Tom’s corpulent childhood friend Ken (Peter Wight) comes by and gets drunk and weepy in the summer. Both are single, but Mary rudely rebuffs Ken’s romantic advances when their paths cross.
Watching their interaction is cringe-inducing enough; what’s worse is the shameless way Mary flirts with Tom and Gerri’s 30-year-old son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), who’s also single, and young enough to be her own son.
Autumn brings the rare source of joy to “Another Year”: Joe’s new girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez). She couldn’t be friendlier or more upbeat, and she maintains that grace even in the face of Mary’s unabashed jealousy and rudeness.
Tom and Gerri, who’ve magically managed to carve out decades of contentment, are clearly the role models here, so they’re enormously relieved that their son has found someone with whom to start his own life.
You could look at them as smug marrieds – and Broadbent and Sheen are unrelentingly adorable together – but challenging events that pass in winter also allow them and the others in their circle to reveal their strength.
Ultimately, Leigh is sympathetic to them all, albeit in his own way.