Sunday, January 9, 2011

Another Year (Mike Leigh) - 2010

How much can we be to blame for the way our friends fall apart? For the damage we watch them bring to themselves day after day? As friends, are we only expected to be a sturdy rock when asked? Or, should we step in and bring an end to the suffering of someone we care for? These are just a few of the questions on my mind after viewing Mike Leigh's triumphant Another Year. Leigh has mastered realism as a film experience. As an art form. No longer does one need to watch for Leigh's mis-steps or seek out complaints. From here on out, Leigh's films are the content within and not all that out of the frame.

Tom and Gerri are presented as a happily married couple with one child, a son. They have a small garden on a shared plot. They tend to the garden together. They travel together. They sip their evening tea side by side. They take turns impressing one another with their culinary skills. And, nightly, they read as they fall asleep next to one another. Their marriage is the stuff of fantasy. But, not necessarily the makings of an excellent film. So, Leigh introduces those within Tom and Gerri's circle- their friends.

The film focuses on two friends, Mary (for a majority of the film) and Ken (for a small portion of the film). Their interactions at dinner parties, a summer bar-b-q, and various other situations. As an audience, we watch as voyeurs in the most silent of fashion. Rarely do we want to laugh too loud or cry too hard. For fear of being noticed and disrupting a scene. How does Leigh and his actors create such intimate moments? Where does their own pain grow from? Their own experiences played out as other people?

Mary, played by Lesley Manville, is one of cinemas most heartbreaking women. Her eyes are always searching the room. Her neck constantly strained and turning. Her fingers must always be in action. And, her mouth always moving. Mary is afraid of the silence, but afraid of what she reveals when she speaks. She's a character of extreme sadness and loss. A woman so driven to prove herself that she is unaware of the danger she has become. Throughout the film, Leigh's camera catches glimpses of Mary on the verge of a complete breakdown. But, it is in the final scene, when Mary sits at the table with a family not her own. She listens to stories of their lives. Their plans for the future. She bites her lip. She lowers her head. She holds back tears in a way we've all done time and time again. Somehow Manville manages to make them seem larger than the everyday. We are watching a woman with no answers try to remember the questions... her purpose... her need to live.

Ken, played by Peter Wright, is an overweight friend of Tom's from college. Ken eats too fast, drinks too much, and smokes too hard. His face and body reveal the mistreatment of himself time and time again. This may lead one to believe Ken is a man unable to express himself. Unable to share the issues causing him to lead a life of such excess. But, he's open. During a late night conversation with Tom and Gerri, Ken breaks down. A sixty year old man weeping in the open. What a rare sight in film or real life. Yet the whole scene is so real and honest. Ken's fear of returning to his home, his job, his routine. And, his fear of giving up the routine. What do we do when we're stuck in a rut? How to we make meaning out of what we do? And how do we find meaning in creating something new for ourselves?

Tom and Gerri are interesting characters. Even though they may not be the film's main attractions. Tom is a geologist. His job is to find out if the ground is sturdy enough to hold future structures. Basically, Tom is meant to find secure foundations. And, Gerri has a similar purpose in her job as a therapist. Again, finding secure foundations for people to function. How is it possible for two people so focused on solid ground to be unable to support their friends? This is where my questions arise in terms of how we relate to our own friends. Are Tom and Gerri not good friends? Or, are they the best type of friends?

In the end, these questions don't need answers. Leigh's film is meant to be an experience in living. A view inside the lives of a small group of people over the course of one year. Who has all the answers? And, what good is there in asking all the questions? Leigh's film is bleak, but filled with humor. It has been a long time since I had such a profound experience with a film. Another Year is certainly Leigh's second best film. If not his best.


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