Yesterday, I caught Mike Leigh’s painstakingly devastating Another Year at the Prince Charles Cinema (I'm in London!) I'd seen it before at home, and it instantly shot high up my favorite films of 2010, but now that I’ve seen it on the big screen, I’d change everything about that blurb I wrote. Such is the bittersweet nature of second viewings! I can’t believe that I didn’t mention the overwhelming change in lighting marking the transition from autumn to winter; as a fervent acolyte of wintertime, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the season visualized better, and the shift is as unforgettable as the jump from 1911 to 2005 in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s similarly partitioned Three Times. There’s so much to talk about with Another Year that I couldn’t possibly get it all in the first time around, or at least, that’s my excuse.
Even more than that final evolution, however, I want to talk about the beginning. It’s a disorienting one if you (like me) go in knowing the major players (Ruth Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, all resplendent here) and find them all absent from the surprisingly extended opening scene. Another Year’s first shot rests steadily on Imelda Staunton; Leigh fans know her as the anchor of the director’s still-perfect Vera Drake, though she’s probably (OK, definitely) better known as Perfesser Umbridge. Anyone with the latter role in mind looking for the actress to suffer will be much too rewarded by Another Year’s opening counseling session; any schadenfreude will be summarily disposed of by Leigh’s camera, which stays tight up to Staunton even as her tight-faced Janet tries desperately to avoid all attention. There’s another woman in the room (Michele Austin’s Tanya, making the absolute most of minimal screen time) but for the first several minutes, we only know her as a disembodied voice and, in one breathtaking shot, as a wedding-ringed hand on Staunton’s impossibly tensed back. That off-camera voice is soothing, intelligent, and loving, but Janet’s having none of it; her eyes alternately stare blankly and flash with frustration and despair, her brittle voice cracking as she denies all help. One can barely imagine her coming to this doctor’s office in the first place, as if Leigh abandoned her here without warning and left her to find her own way out. Yet here she is.
Tanya eventually convinces her to come back and see a counselor, at which point we cut (finally; cuts never arrive as soon as you expect in Another Year) to Broadbent and Sheen, scurrying around their lush allotment in the rain. It’s spring, the beginning of Leigh’s four-season cycle, and we’ve found the couple we’ll be following through the next winter. Yet that opening scene took place inside, in the gray office gloom, with no indication of the season raging on outside. Some things are eternal, such as the state of just barely hanging on.
We do see Janet again, coming to see Sheen’s Gerri, who works as a medical counselor; I was reminded strongly of the anonymous crooks’ nightmarish reappearance in A History of Violence, but once Janet disappears around Gerri’s closing door, we never see her again. Gerri exhales and sags, exhausted after such a difficult patient.
As I said in my aforementioned best-of-the-year blurb on Another Year, Lesley Manville’s dizzy, dejected Mary quickly becomes Leigh’s focus, but after a second viewing, I’d argue it’s more productive to ignore the protagonist question. Another Year succeeds brilliantly in large part because it separates narrative primacy from point of view. The latter is irretrievably Tom and Gerri’s; opening aside, we are tied to their house and the parade of visitors streaming through it, united by the doting couple’s hospitality. Yet Tom and Gerri don’t control Another Year, because for all their listening ears, they can’t really do anything about the misery surrounding them. Their well-guarded happiness fences out all else, through no fault of their own; every time we return to that allotment, it looks less like an overflowing paradise than a tirelessly maintained fortress of contentment besieged by an unhappy world. They lie in their no doubt decades-old bed, sharing a few distracted words on Mary’s fragility that seem frankly inadequate when set against Manville’s shattering performance, reminding me of Fargo’s Marge and Norm Gunderson sheltering themselves in each other. (There’s another essential winter film.)
Narrative primacy belongs to Tom and Gerri’s guests, yet they’re only guests, passing through on to who knows what, although we’re given a good guess: “nothing changes,” Janet mutters. “If you could change one thing about your life, what would you change?” Gerri asks her. “Different life,” Janet replies. Of course, unlike Mary, we never see anything of her life. Janet seems helpless and hopeless, but she did come to Gerri, which few would have predicted. “It’s up to you,” Gerri tells her before Leigh closes the door on her. Who knows where she went?
“As long as we’re friends, I’m all right,” Mary will later tell a dubious Gerri to win her back. The opposite might be true, but that’s not really what Leigh’s interested in. Another Year’s final shot finds Mary surrounded by her willing friends and a new prospect, yet Leigh gradually kills the sound and frames her alone. Among those not tuned into the director’s wavelength, this closing has been cast as the cruel icing on the pessimistic cake, but I see it as a final note of grace for an unsentimental but hardly fatalist film. When Gerri makes clear that she has an inner circle running deeper than her houseguests (“This is my family”), she cedes Another Year’s focus on Mary to Leigh and the audience, and reveals the film’s universal, rather than personal, nature. The opening scene is intentionally incongruous, reminding us throughout that the lives on display here are bigger than one charming retreat on the outskirts of London. We’re all guests in each other’s lives, and Tom and Gerri have no more insight into Mary’s future than I do. And all I can do is root for her, and I do. I really, really do.