In Another Year's fascinating opening prologue a pretty and pregnant physician dutifully takes the blood-pressure of a middle aged and deeply depressed insomniac. The patient, played brilliantly in her brief appearence by Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), sits lifeless and sullen on the examination table. Her head down, face pale and long, eyes puffed and despondent. Her name is Janet and she lethargically pleads for pills, but the doctor prescribes therapy with the hospital's veteran counselor instead. In their first and only session the counselor asks the deeply troubled Janet what she needs. She plainly replies, "A new life."
The incarnated misery imprinted on Staunton's mug is recognizably despairing. Her life-beaten face was like one I might see on a bus or train only for a passing, but indelible moment. But Another Year isn't about Janet. She presumably goes off to live out the rest of her sadly dour existence. The story switches focus to the counselor - a twilight-aged wife and mother named Gerri (Ruth Sheen) - who drives home to an elegant bourgeois cottage in the London suburbs. Waiting for her there is loving and successful husband Tom (Jim Broadbent) and a rapturous and bountiful backyard garden. Essentially, if Janet is the epitome of misery than Tom and Gerri are the very antithesis: perfectly content.
That cannot necessarily be said for the visitors that frequent their Eden-esque home and garden. Over the course of one year they open their doors to an overweight and slothful childhood friend Ken (Peter Wright), Tom's disassociated brother Ronnie (David Bradley), and Gerri's lonely and desperate longtime colleague Mary (Lesley Manville): three aging individuals who've found life a considerably more difficult proposition then their jovial hosts and counterparts.
But writer/director Mike Leigh's captivating narrative is far too everyday to idealize the perfect man and wife. There not so much an aged Adam-and-Eve-in-the-garden as a sweetly satisfied ordinary couple. That's the best anyone can hope for in the real world, right? And if their garden - a perfectly realized milieu that morphs beautifully with the seasons - is particularly lush and the food they cook from it particularly delectable then maybe it's the distorted perceptions of those visitors who attatch themselves to Tom and Gerri's complacent warmth.
This is true of none more than Manville's Mary who for all intensive purposes takes over the movie, both as protagonist and emotionally wrenching performer. Manic and loquacious, Manville slingshots Leigh's rapid fire dialogue with an uncomfortable and neurotic twinge. She's imposing and a drunk, but ultimately sad and in-need. The director cleverly makes her the film's beating heart and as the story's most dependent houseguest, rejection could be shattering to her already fragile persona.
Leigh's Another Year is just the latest in his subgenre of grounded contemporary-realism. The conflicts are light and glazed over. The characters are fervent and fleshed out. The dialogue comes fast in extended sequences - some of it trivial, but all of it brimming with honesty and quiet truths. Leigh is notoriously Altman-esque is his approach to actors and improvisation, but working mostly in the vein of Ozu here: elaborately composed interiors, melancholic musical transitions, and commonplace middle-class familial strife that's shielded by an unrelenting cultural courtesy. (The Brits and the Japanese have that in common).
As consequence, Mike Leigh's dramedy-of-manners is one of the best films of the year and essentially a story of haves-and-have-nots. In its gentler moments it's a catharsis on love and friendship, but the tone slips gradually as summer turns to winter and life grows darker/colder - and the film transforms into a meditation on the coexistence of the happy and the miserable as eternally sequestered in not ephemeral. Like how a life-broken face (possibly Mary's or Janet's) could pass by in the window of a bus or train, and for a fleeting moment their misery can become ours.