We like to pretend that middle age lasts until we’re well into our 60s, but the truth is, none of us will live to 120. And despite our efforts to repress this disturbing knowledge, it lurks somewhere in our consciousness, and it can cause all sorts of discontent and fear. But somehow these sensations never faze Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), the contented couple at the heart of Mike Leigh’s terrific new film.
Their friends, however, are a mess. Janet (Imelda Staunton, mesmerizing in two short scenes) is paralyzed by disappointment and depression and can’t even summon the ability to talk about why. Tom’s old pal Ken (Peter Wight) is a heart attack waiting to happen, railing about how noisy young people are (Gerri gently reminds him that they were all rather noisy in 1968 on the Isle of Wight). And needy, desperately lonely Mary (Lesley Manville, who delivers an Oscar-worthy performance) slugs back wine as if it’s water and struggles to find something, anything, to give her life meaning.
Leigh (Happy-Go-Lucky, Vera Drake, Topsy-Turvy, Secrets& Lies) excels at character-driven domestic dramas. As a filmmaker he cares less about what happens next than he does about observing the ebb and flow of everyday contemporary life and what elements of it dim our happiness or quell our misery. Somehow, in his hands, this approach results in compelling films. And with Another Year, in which he focuses on people who are all too aware that time is short and examines the realities of what growing old is like, he may well have made his happiest — and best — movie.
Like sunny Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, Tom and Gerri don’t spend much time fretting about missed opportunities or time’s running out or the fact that gardening takes a bit more out of them than it used to. Comfortable together, they’re well aware that they’re lucky to have made it this far when so many of their contemporaries have fallen prey to divorce, disappointment or health problems. He’s a geologist; she’s a counselor; they have a good relationship with their grown son (Oliver Maltman). They like cooking and good wine, and they take care of their friends with a no-nonsense compassion that’s quietly heroic, especially in the case of loose cannon Mary, who shows up unannounced, can’t stop blathering about herself and whose self-pity is overwhelming.
Mary is a mess and a horror, but Leigh displays compassion for her (though he’s not above having a bit of fun at her expense). Her capacity for self-delusion turns out to be greater than Gerri’s considerable patience after one particularly egregious incident, but the remarkable Gerri is not a woman to reject a graceful solution to even a problem so disheartening as Mary.
Leigh’s writing process has long involved a grand collaboration with his actors through rehearsals and improvisation, and the result in Another Day is a script that deftly fleshes out characters and mimics reality shockingly well. Leigh’s work is the polar opposite of, say, The Social Network’s Aaron Sorkin, whose dazzling, witty repartee sounds great on screen precisely because nobody really talks that way. Leigh, on the other hand, uses the language to reveal and revel in the sorrows and the joys of everyday life.
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Oliver Maltman.
Writer-director: Mike Leigh.
Producer: Georgina Lowe.
A Sony Pictures Classics studios release. Running time: 129 minutes. Some language. Opens Friday Jan. 28 in Miami-Dade: South Beach, Aventura; Broward: Gateway; Palm Beach: Shadowood, Delray.