Review: ANOTHER YEAR (Mike Leigh)
The first thing I said to my friend as we walked out of Another Year was, “Can you think of another filmmaker who has gone through such a lull like that, then come back to create masterworks again?” Twelve years passed between Life Is Sweet and All or Nothing, and in that interval Mike Leigh made his weakest films including Naked, a great critical success that was basically the opposite of everything he had done up to that point, and Topsy-Turvy which seemed to caricature his own style quite like Altman’s The Company. Perhaps this context is unnecessary, but point is that I was doubly happy as I walked out of Another Year, happy to have seen such a great movie and happy that one of the greatest living filmmakers still makes masterworks.
First let us consider improvisation. I’m not talking about actors making up lines, but characters that are able to ride the flow of tones and moods, to play along with whatever that are given in human interaction. Gerri is a prototypical Mike Leigh heroine. Mary has passed out downstairs and Gerri and Tom are in bed. She confesses he concerns about Mary. There is a little back and forth before he blurts out (I am paraphrasing from memory), “You know, I never really understood history.” Gerri takes the abrupt change and runs with it. “Oh yeah?” she says, then they chat about his new topic. No more discussion of Mary, no resentment or annoyance about the change of subject. She just rolls with it. This characterizes Gerri’s entire relationship with Mary, which accounts for how Gerri is able to remain friends with Mary, despite how desperately needy she is. Leigh celebrates characters who are able adjust to the rhythms and whims of those around them.
In Another Year characters are multi-dimensional. There is no “true” or “essential,” but who they are in different situations and with different other people. There are better and worse versions of each character depending on the context, but never “the real” person. Gerri showing sympathy for Mary is as equally Gerri as the one who chides her in a later scene. She always gives Mary the benefit of the doubt, but sometimes Gerri has to put her foot down. Perhaps she considers her harmless and childlike, but there is a point where her treatment of the son’s new girlfriend gets so rude that Gerri has to put a stop to it.
When Mary shows up unannounced and desperate, Gerri is actively annoyed. She even snaps at her, another color we have not seen before, “You really should have called first, Mary.” And Gerri actually looks bad here, she looks petty and impatient when she tells Mary she was disappointed in her. Because Gerri has not seen Mary as the audience just has. She didn’t see how desperate she was when she came to the door. She didn’t see that she was able to make Ronnie smile, an amazing moment! She didn’t hear her ask Ronnie if he wanted to cuddle. Was that an inappropriate question? Was she asking for Ronnie or for herself?
This is what Leigh does and has been doing for decades. He shows that a person is not the same person from morning to night every day. People reveal different parts of themselves depending on who they interact with, even people that we think are shallow like Mary. She is not purely selfish; she wants to give. She wants to be generous. She is not annoying to everyone; some people find her charming. Likewise, Gerri is not always nurturing and forgiving. Sometimes she is petty and fed up. They are paired as opposites, Leigh indicating through his style that Gerri’s approach to life is the one he espouses, but he has great sympathy for Mary. The film does not judge Mary; it tries to understand her and so it ends up being as much about her inability to improvise, to listen to others and to think about others, as it is a celebration of Gerri’s generosity and improvisational prowess.