Why, veteran director Mike Leigh asks in his new film Another Year, are some people in this wide, crazy world almost obnoxiously content while others stumble about in a haze of bitter loneliness and unhappiness? Tom and Gerri, the moral, physical, and philosophical center of Another Year are part of that mysterious, almost mythical, first group of happiness and satisfaction. They are partners in the truest sense of the word: they share their lives not out of desperation or routine, but because they truly love and compliment each other. They are nearly in perfect sync, without tension or reproach; they respect not only each other, but themselves as well. It would be simple to mistake their easy-going marriage as the key to their happiness, but it is only a result of their own internal peace. Only the most naïve young lovebirds believe love is about passion. How often have we heard unimaginative dolts exalt their partner (for the moment) by claiming they complete each other? If someone needs another person to complete them, they and their relationship are doomed. It’s almost a cliché to say one must respect oneself before true happiness is possible, but that cliché holds the truth. For Leigh, Tom and Gerri are the archetypes for pure happiness.
Their cozy suburban London home serves as a safe haven for a circle of broken and lonely friends like Tom’s recently widowed brother, Ronnie; Gerri’s borderline alcoholic friend from work, Mary; and Tom’s overweight, desperately single childhood friend Ken. Told in four acts timed to the seasons of a single year, we watch Tom and Gerri offer what solace they can to their less fortunate friends without condescension or judgment. Gerri (Ruth Sheen) is a counselor and uses her professional skills to try and guide them to better judgments rather than browbeating them with useless observations, determinations, and ultimatums. Tom (Jim Broadbent) can be more direct in his observations, but Gerri swoops in to shut him down should he go too far.
Their friends, Ken and Mary especially, are both attracted to and repelled by the serene surroundings of Tom and Gerri’s home and their peaceful relationship. They are attracted to tangible evidence that happiness exists –actually truly exists – unlike less certain myths such as the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot. The example of Tom and Gerri suggests that there could be a light at the end of the tunnel and, if they find the right partner or get the right job, the suffering that has come to define them could actually end. But they are also repelled by Tom and Gerri’s seemingly unattainable personal paradigm. At one point, when Mary is over for dinner, Tom tells Gerri she is a beautiful woman and she knows it. Mary crumbles a little at this private moment shared in front of her. She tries to smile knowingly, but she can’t help be a little jealous that no one is there to tell her the same thing – especially since she more than likely believes she is much more attractive than Gerri ever was.
Mary, not Tom and Gerri, is the true center of the picture but Mike Leigh is smart enough to give us breaks from her frenetic presence. Lesley Manville’s manic performance is great, but I don’t think I could have sat through more than two hours of just her. The character so tiresome and frustrating that Leigh had to keep her on the periphery. Balancing her with the more grounded and stable Tom and Gerri is the only way he could have made a movie about Mary without sending us into the street screaming. Mary is the counterpoint to Tom and Gerri’s successes. Where they have succeeded, she has failed – miserably. A string of broken romances (including one with a married man), a messy divorce, no assets, a dead end job, probably terrible money management skills, and a cloying neediness define her. In the beginning of the picture she puts on a good show, being bubbly and cheerful, to mask her insecurity and desperation. For Mary, acting positive is the recipe for fulfillment. So long as she grins stupidly and laughs loudly at the lamest attempts at a joke, people will think she is happy. Her compromised self-esteem dictates that she can only be happy if others love and accept her.
We watch Mary, over the course of this year and several visits to her friends, struggle over things she should have at her age – a husband, children, a home, etc. In the beginning of the film she thinks buying a car will make her happy, will afford her freedom and independence, will finally burst open doors for her that, now in middle age, are beginning to feel more and more closed and locked. But over the course of the film we watch this once promising acquisition devolve into another long running disaster.
One of the most disturbing aspects of Mary’s neuroses is her odd attachment to Tom and Gerri’s son Joe (Oliver Maltman). Though he is now 30, Mary has known him since he was 10. Despite this age disparity, Mary believes Joe is meant for her and perks up every time she hears he isn’t seeing anyone, as though his continued single status confirms the warped romantic fantasy she has weaved in her head. She begins to unravel when Joe finally does bring a charming woman home to meet her parents. Her overwrought reaction to Joe’s romance strains her relationship with Gerri and pushes her close to the edge of a breakdown.
But how could Mary possibly be happy even with Joe in her bed? He couldn’t possibly make her happy – no one could. What she doesn’t see, what so many unhappy people stuck in their ruts don’t see, is Tom and Gerri aren’t happy because they have each other, or because they have good careers, or because they have a beautiful home, or because they have a great son, or any other thing Mary and Ken wished they had in their lives. They are happy because, as corny and as Stuart Smalley-ish it sounds, they like themselves.
Happiness then is a choice, not something that we just stumble into. We must choose to accept ourselves as we are. No one says this is easy. Making the choice is harder than truly looking at ourselves, our faults, foibles, insecurities, irresponsibility, and working through them. Mary, despite all her desperation, has never been desperate enough to face the truth or get help to help her do so (even at the end she shakes off Gerri’s suggestion that she get professional help). It is amazing how much easier it is for someone like Mary to hate herself and be miserable than to face facts.
Another Year is a triumph. It is a carefully constructed character study with finely tuned performances, especially from Lesley Manville and Jim Broadbent. About 20 minutes into the movie I perked up, realizing that I was loving what I had seen and, if Leigh kept it up, this could be an exceptional film. He did keep it up. He cautiously balances and intermingles moments of intense sadness with moments of laugh-out-loud humor. Though the movie left me with a lingering pang of classism (Only educated, well-off people can truly be happy? No room for a mechanic or a truck driver in there?), it wasn’t enough to undercut my emotional reaction to what I had seen on screen: simply one of the best movies of 2010.