Monday, January 31, 2011

Review: 'Another Year'

I saw this movie on Friday and decided to write an honest-to-goodness review of a film for once.  Sorry it got a little long-winded, hope you enjoy.  

There’s a scene in Another Year in which Gerri, a post middle-aged woman played by Ruth Sheen, is tending to her and her husband Tom’s (Jim Broadbent) allotment, a modest little garden outside of London, where they grow tomatoes.  It is autumn, and the sun is shining and the vines are bearing plump, lipstick-red, ripened tomatoes.  Taking a quick break from the labor, Gerri looks up to the England sky as a breeze gains momentum and passes through the meadow, and closes her eyes to enjoy this brief and beautiful moment in time.  This scene could tell you much about the film, or not; the film itself leaves it up to you to decide. 

Perhaps it was because I was enjoying my own little slice of life; a great day of January whether in combination with a day off of school.  Before going into the theater to watch the movie, I sat outside a coffee shop next door enjoying an espresso, neglecting my usual distractions of my iPhone or my laptop in favor of observing the other customers, their dogs, other folks passing by along the sidewalk, and the hustle and bustle of nearby shops. 

Perhaps I harnessed that joy I was feeling, that acute awareness of my simple blessings that comes along maybe once a month, as I walked from the coffee shop into the theater.  Perhaps that is why this film, directed by the Brit veteran Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky, Vera Drake) is one that had me smiling from ear to ear at points and nearly in tears at others, and was a viewing experience that I won’t soon forget.

Tom and Gerri (yes, you read that correctly) are the emotional anchors at the center of the narrative.  The long happily married couple work at modest jobs, but make enough to have a decent home, and entertain guests with good food and wine.  Among these guests are Gerri’s co-worker and friend Mary, a middle-aged, nervous, very single, wine-gulping and depressed woman, wonderfully played by Lesley Manville.  Another is Ken, an old school buddy of Tom’s who is equally as hopeless as Mary, but unlike her he seems to have accepted this fate.  There is Tom’s brother, an almost-mute who experiences the loss of his wife.  And lastly is Tom and Gerri’s son, a 30-something who comes by every so often, and maintains a balanced relationship with his parents. 

A very telling seen involves a dinner with Ken, who, after devouring plates of food as well as several beers and who knows how much wine, opines over a cigarette that things aren’t like they used to be.  When he was younger, people would “meet at the pub, have a few drinks, and go out for a curry,” but that doesn’t happen anymore.  Mike Leigh, who also wrote the script, consistently reminds us about the passing of time (the film is a literal year, broken into four sections denoted by the seasons); people change, get older, both a birth and death occur, a new relationship forms, while another may be squelched.

Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen give great
performances in Another Year.
Tom and Gerri understand that time is precious, and therefore treat each other, as well as their friends and family, with love and respect, despite their flaws.  Mary’s character comes into the forefront of the story as the year progresses—for all of Tom and Gerri’s stability, Mary’s contrasting instability becomes grating.  Her faint hope of finding a man to take care of her dwindles by every season, starting with spring and ending, for her, in the cold reality that is winter.  But the suggestion is that Tom and Gerri have found happiness because they have chosen it, whereas Mary or Ken may expect it to come by way of luck, and therefore remain disappointed in the way their lives have turned out.    

This is where the scene that I described at the beginning of this review becomes important.  By what methods do we find contentment—luck or choice?  Gerri’s choice to stop and delight in the breeze asks us this question.  Do we resent a spring shower that comes while working in the garden, or are we thankful for the moisture that it brings?  Do we invite friends into our homes for food and drink and company, or do we wait to be invited?  Some measure of luck is no doubt involved, but our decisions, over time, make us who we are. 

And so Another Year is exactly what its title claims—a small measure of time in the lives of no one in particular.  In this way, perhaps it tells us more about ourselves than it says about the characters in the film, which is a remarkable cinematic achievement in itself. 

Besides the wonderful direction, script, and acting, which I’ve already discussed, the cinematography, score, costumes and makeup, and particularly the art direction/set design add a genuine and wonderful feel to the film.  These technical elements will not go noticed by awards bodies due to their lack of flashiness, but perhaps added as much to the aesthetic of a film as any I’ve seen this year.  


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