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Another Year (Blu-ray Review)

13 Jun, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Sony Pictures
Box Office $3.2 million
$38.96 Blu-ray/DVD combo
Rated ‘PG-13 for some language.
Stars Lesley Manville, Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Imelda Staunton.

During one of those intense arguments that seemed “age-old” until it peaked two months in, I developed a stock answer when voicing my two cents over whether Oscar-winning The King’s Speech or The Social Network was the best movie of 2010. In my view, the indisputably pleasing Speech wasn’t even the best British film of last year when judged against writer-director Mike Leigh’s latest — though, truth to tell, Another Year’s huzzahs were borderline tepid, at least in relationship to its merit. Though it got despite generally superior reviews (92% on Rotten Tomatoes), its only Oscar nomination came for original screenplay when, in recent years, it’s has almost been an oddity whenever a Leigh script hasn’t gotten a nomination.

Among its many grown-up virtues, Year offers testimony to the life advantage of finding the right soulmate — as dramatized by the perfectly synchronized relationship of married Londoners Tom and Gerri (which ends up being good for one, but just one, joke). Tom (Jim Broadbent) is a geographical engineer with a flair for shared yard work, while Gerri (fellow Leigh veteran Ruth Sheen) is a psychologist who deals with unhappy people as a daily diet. I have a married friend who also deals with the emotionally disturbed, and to an eerie degree, it’s uncanny how much her personality is like the Gerri character. Both women have significant antennae for personal foibles and never fail to miss the tiniest beat (note Gerri’s brief side glances to her husband here whenever she spots a warning sign). But they’re not in the least judgmental personalities until some kind of saturation point is reached.

Gerri’s toughest test case is co-worker Mary, played both intensely and unforgettably by another Leigh regular (Lesley Manville); if you want to see how deftly Leigh shuffles his deck, compare Manville here with her performance as Lucy Gilbert (married to Broadbent’s W.S.) in the filmmaker’s spectacular Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy. Veteran of both a bad marriage and a temporarily fulfilling love affair that ended badly, Mary always looks as if she has just rolled out of the sack – and not in the good way. The movie doesn’t make a huge deal out of her being an alcoholic, but she is. After one arduous commute to see her friends, Mary grabs an offered glass of white wine like a life rope handed to someone who has fallen into some rapids.

Though the National Board of Review and the London Critics Circle voted Manville 2010’s best actress, there was some debate whether role should have been in the lead or supporting category. There are fairly chunky stretches in which she doesn’t appear, yet Manville is a major force in each of the film’s four chapters (“spring,” “summer,” “autumn” and “winter”) — sometimes serving as their final exclamation points, Year’s resonant wrap-up included. In many ways, she’s the focal point of the story.

The “spring” section, appropriately, offers some promise, as if Mary’s purchase of a car really has a chance of licking the woes of a person for whom mere driving has always constituted a major life adventure. But by the time the weather starts to turn dreary again, she’s trying to sort out whether it is parts or labor that is guaranteed in an auto’s warranty. And in between, there’s her discomforting encounter with Ken (Peter Wight), another smoking/drinking friend of the host couple, though one who manages the physical fall-out with even less finesse. There’s also Mary’s rather queasy flirtation with Tom and Gerri’s 30-year-old son (Oliver Maltman), which suddenly seems less harmless when she begins to backbite the relentlessly upbeat and age-appropriate woman he’s begun to date (and seriously). The plasticity of Manville’s face is something to see: in half a beat, she can go from warmly approachable to withered and party-killing.

Without really jack-hammering the point, Year finally becomes at least a little about preserving at least a few square yards of marital/familial turf for one’s self. That is: we’ll invite you for grilled chicken, ply you with spirits and let you bend our ears with your problems — as long as you don’t smoke in our house or near a visiting newborn during out cookout. But don’t show up unannounced — or worse, unannounced just after a funeral — and make at least a tentative attempt to pull your own weight at least once in a while. Squirrelliness that amuses when we’re in our 20s has a way of not aging well — and befitting the title, this is to great extent a movie about aging.

To be sure, Year isn’t exactly the kind of production Blu-ray was designed to enhance for home audiences, but the format’s capabilities do add some punch to the searing quality of the actors’ faces. As usual, you won’t find a preponderance of idols here for your matinees, but whether it’s high-end Leigh or not (and this is high), you always know to expect solid characters with backstories, precise performances plucked from his stock company and a near-unique mix of improvisation and control. Leigh is 68 now, and I can’t think of anyone around who’ll quite be able to step into his shoes. Fortunately, he works fairly regularly and hasn’t lost a beat (certainly not here).

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