But there’s a cyclical, contemplative tone to ‘Another Year’ that’s unfamiliar, especially after the short, sharp energy bursts of ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ and the climactic tragedy of ‘Vera Drake’. Like ‘Life Is Sweet’ or ‘All or Nothing’, it’s another film that warmly observes a married couple, their family and their relations with themselves and the outside world. Yet there’s a wisdom and restraint to this film and a confidence of purpose that makes it Leigh’s most mature work to date.
It follows a year in the life of a sixtysomething couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). He’s a commercial geologist; she’s an NHS therapist, a member of ‘the caring professions’, says her husband, adding jokingly, ‘I don’t care.’ They live together in a home on a quiet street somewhere in suburbia that reflects their settled, earthy personalities. They’re social creatures, and it’s their interaction with friends and family that Leigh focuses on, mostly in their home, over lunch, dinner or a drink at their kitchen table.
Through Tom and Gerri, we meet others at close quarters. Some, we encounter briefly, such as Gerri’s depressed patient, Janet (Imelda Staunton), or a friend, Jack (Phil Davis), with an absent, troubled wife. Others, we come to know better. There’s their old friend Ken (Peter Wight), who visits from the North during the summer and masks an unhappy personal life with ample smoking, drinking and eating, and their son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), a balanced professional who seems sanguine about being single and pops round to see them at home or at their allotment.
It’s at the latter where we see Tom and Gerri at work each season, their gardening offering a nod to the film’s sense of time passing, cycles turning and life going by as we move through spring, summer and winter, each chapter titled as such. Later on, during a beautifully filmed, sombre winter trip to a funeral in Derby, we meet Ronnie (David Bradley), Tom’s older brother, a quiet, bereaved man, a world away in experience and aura from his sibling. Gary Yershon’s meditative, sometimes jaunty score adds to the air of everyday resignation, while cinematographer Dick Pope offers a number of quietly sly framings and makes the most of the story’s seasonal changes.
Each of Tom and Gerri’s friends and family throw light on how stable and contented Tom and Gerri’s lives are, and vice versa. But none more so than Mary (Lesley Manville), a colleague of Gerri, a secretary, a little younger, and a woman whose self-image is all askew. She’s single and unhappy, with a traumatic romantic history, but tries to hide it through mania, wishful thinking, delusions about her age and, again, alcohol. Mary also behaves badly, and a run-in with someone close to Tom and Gerri tests their patience, causing Mary to be temporarily exiled from their welcoming nest.
Mary emerges as the film’s great tragedy, the embodiment of Gerri’s comment: ‘Life’s not always kind, is it?’ Her presence turns ‘Another Year’ from a study of contentment into a portrait of loneliness and longing. Mary tests the patience of both her friends and us, bringing us to another of Leigh’s chief interests: the limits of compassion. How far can we go to help others? Is there always an element of self-interest to caring? And why do we seek comfort in those who can’t offer it? They are all questions that ring in our ears as the film closes on a powerful, open image. It reminds us of Manville’s quietly devastating performance and the stellar work of her fellow cast.