Archive for the ‘Mike Leigh’ category

Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2010)

4 December 2011

Gerri: On a scale of one to ten, how happy would you say you are, Janet?
Janet: One.
Gerri: One. I think there’s room for improvement there, don’t you?

Another Year

Joe (Oliver Maltman), Mary (Lesley Manville) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen)

What was the best British film of 2010?  The King’s Speech swept the board at all the glitzy awards ceremonies, and those who measure quality in financial terms will probably point out that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows took far more than any other British film at the box office.  In another year, perhaps, Another Year would have been allowed room to shine between the laments for the dire state of British cinema, a reminder that Mike Leigh is a consistent creator of high-quality.

Leigh, along with Peter Greenaway and Ken Loach (both of whom this blog will surely be visiting in time), is one of the few genuine British auteur directors, and of the three perhaps the most quintessentially British.  The British, it always seems to me, have a deep suspicion of the auteur, the creative genius craftsman.  Perhaps they are just too Continental for comfort, don’t you know.  But perhaps in Leigh’s case they are wary because he gets too near to the truth, his slices of lower-middle class life too close to the bone for comfort.  And Another Year isn’t a comfortable or comforting film.  It’s all about happiness, and survey after survey shows the British to be unhappiest people in Europe.

At its still centre is a sublimely happy middle-aged married couple called Tom and Gerri.  Yes, really, and it’s so deliberate the script draws attention to it at one point.  Like their anthropomorphic cartoon namesakes they may enjoy sparring with each other but at bottom their devotion to and dependence on each other is so deep that each would defend the other to the death.  Actually it’s not as dramatic as that; there is little sign of conflict between them and they are as solid and dependable as the seasons whose progress is marked by their work on the allotment, planting, harvesting, digging as the year progresses.   Things don’t happen to Tom and Gerri; people do.  People who are so desperately unhappy that they have become self-destructive.  People like Tom’s old friend Ken, drinking and eating himself to certain early death.  Or Tom’s brother Ronnie, shrunken into taciturn withdrawal from a world he no longer comprehends., or Ronnie’s estranged son Carl, door-slammingly angry and bitter at everyone and everything.

And then there’s Mary, right there at the centre of such action as there is.  Mary, long-standing friend and colleague of Gerri’s, who seems so bright and lively and charming at the beginning.  One feels that Mary should have everything going for her if he weren’t so chronically in denial about her own failings.  When she gets maudlin drunk and wallows in self-pity on the shoulders of the unflappable Tom and Gerri, or engages with outrageous flirting with their placid son Joe it’s tooth-achingly painful to watch.  When jealousy propels her into outright rudeness to Joe’s effervescent new girlfriend Katie it’s too much even for Gerri; a rift develops between them and Mary’s subsequent sharp decline is nothing less than agonising.  I said it wasn’t comfortable, and the source of the discomfort is that we’ve all known a Mary and maybe, just maybe, some of us older women have been in danger of being Mary.  Gerri, who tries hard to keep her day job as a counsellor out of her social life, is finally prompted in her upset with Mary to suggest she seeks professional help.  I’d like to thinks that she does;  for all the agony Lesley Manville makes the character so believable that I care about her and want her to find the redemption redemption and self-knowledge that she seems on the edge of accepting at the end.  But we aren’t given the easy answer, as the curtain comes down on the inner torment in Mary’s eyes.

I say “the curtain comes down” as a metaphor.  What actually happens is a cut to black;  a long, lingering black before the credits begin to roll.  Let the metaphor serve as a reminder that if there is a mark of a distinctively British style of film-making and television it is theatricality – it’s a mark I’ll be revisiting again and again.  There’s a reason why Hollywood, which likes its all-American leading men and women, so often turns to the likes of Anthony Hopkins or Alan Rickman for its villains; they have a stage training American film actors can seldom match.  Mike Leigh is, more than any other British director, rooted in the theatre and it’s 1960s offspring, the television play.  Another Year could have been a Play for Today from thirty years ago.  Leigh is also noted for his style of working, a style which goes back to Shakespeare and beyond.  He surrounds himself with a joint stock company of seasoned actors who are also skilled improvisers, and between them all they build a characterisation and script that is thoroughly coherent and believable.

Leigh isn’t unique in this respect, nor is the technique absent from big name American cinema.  Perhaps Mike Leigh’s nearest equivalent in creating films light on plot but rich in character is Woody Allen; Orson Welles worked in much the same way and the Coen bothers too in our own generation, but none are close to the Hollywood cash machine.  When the obituaries are written for British film, as they are at regular intervals, the notices are for the ability to make the big-budget blockbuster.  Well, let Hollywood do what it does best since it has the money to do so.  So long as Mike Leigh is turning out films like Another Day, British cinema would seem to be in rude health.