Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent as Jerri and Tom in Another Year (2010)
It seems a strange place to start but I'd like to talk about the poster for Another Year. Aside from all the critical pull quotes that surround it the central image is a really beautiful one - it sums up not just the characters in the film and the seasons they journey through, but the roots that sprout off of the tree also pinpoint exactly what makes Mike Leigh's cinema so great. It's a two-handed analogy which A) represents the idea that all of Leigh's characters have firm roots with each other and that they are deeply grounded and realistic, and B) reminds us that Leigh has always been great at assembling ensemble casts and repeating them over and over again; at this point there are several quintessential faces in the Leigh universe and his filmmaking style feels somewhat like bringing members of a family back together in order to investigate once again the art of storytelling and character. His method of rehearsal and forming the script through improvisation is well documented, and it's almost like the roots coming off of the tree represent individually all of his films - meaning that they all stem from the same place, and the same themes. If that's true (and there are exceptions) then perhaps his finest gathering to date is his latest Another Year, a deeply heartfelt tribute to loneliness, getting old and coming to terms with the cards life has dealt you.
One of the age-old arguments concerning Leigh's cinema is whether it is optimistic or pessimistic. The best case study would be the ying-and-yang pairing of Naked (1993) and Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), one a nihilistic roar and the other a celebration of kind-heartedness (you can see my analysis on the films here). But such simplistic reductions actually detract from the fact that Leigh is ultimately a dramatist, a humorist and a humanist - and no amount of critical nitpicking and analysis is going to change the fact that that's where he builds his cinema from. It comes from a place of honesty, and the filmmakers' mantra is that you can't make a joke without drama and you can't have drama without jokes. Another Year is a shining example of this, and it's nowhere near as clearcut as some of his previous pictures. Leigh has never been one to tie up events in a neat little bow but the ending to Another Year is something else entirely - I won't say anything except that it focuses on a face, and in a moment of piercing silence it leaves you with so many questions and ideas that it's with a great sadness that I left the film, not knowing the fate of the character in question. These are real people - people with deep, deep flaws - and as with any of your own friends you want to see them do well. You want to help them, but realize that you can't hold somebody's hand forever. I wanted to see this character find happiness, but I was hoping for something that only happens in the movies. This film is so raw and honest it might as well be documentary - but then, that would be do undermine how cinematic it is. In fact, it's Leigh's most cinematic effort so far...
In the way that Leigh presents social realities, complexities and familial relationships he has often been compared with the Japanese master Yasujirô Ozu, whose floor-level static shots and painterly compositions have marked him as one of the great directors of all time. Leigh has always embraced theme with the same passion and deep thought as Ozu, but many of his works are un-cinematic; almost distinctively televisual in their aesthetic, never better exemplified than in the excellent All Or Nothing (2002), which seemed rather like a two-hour episode of Jimmy McGovern's The Street (TV, 2006 - ). Even social realists like Lynne Ramsay bring scope and audacity to their work through camerawork; think of the scene in Ratcatcher (1999) when Snowball flies to the Moon, or the scene where Jimmy runs through the orange oat fields that seem like a dream compared to his drab existence. Frankly, the scenes are astonishing. Although Leigh never displays as much verve with the camera (and he doesn't need to if we're being honest) there is more attention paid to aesthetic in Another Year. The plot essentially follows a happily married middle-aged couple named Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) over four afternoons over four different seasons, as into their home and lives come various different friends and relations who are all depressed or suffering. Tom and Gerri are a symbol of stability, and a unit of love (which is not to say they don't have cracks) and around them orbits unhappiness. For others their home is like a haven and a place of warmth. By the way, if another filmmaker was called to mind in the plot description of "four afternoons over four different seasons" then yes, I thought of Eric Rohmer too.
My point is that the visuals in Leigh's latest notably shift through those seasons and inform mood and tone greatly. More than ever before he draws emotion from aesthetic as well as character. The Summer BBQ is never overplayed but has a natural warmth - the grass is greener, the characters wear shorts and dresses, and the sun shines on them as they display a great optimism and togetherness. The image is bright; crisp. But as we close on Winter the film adapts a colder, more detached aesthetic. The browns and greys are more accentuated, the boldness reduced; vibrancy is dead. Again, I shan't spoil the details but with Winter comes the death of a character and the very matter-of-fact funeral is deeply moving and recognizable. A character named Ronnie (David Bradley) comes to stay with Tom and Gerri - he is quiet and reserved, old and sad. He has fallen out of favour with the world and seems only to want to be left alone. But one day the lonely Mary (Lesley Manville, astonishing) comes round to visit as she always does - but the couple she has come to depend on so much are away at the allotment. Ronnie lets her in and over an awkward, heartbreaking fifteen minutes they spend time in each others company. Sometimes they talk, sometimes they don't. Her desperation to connect and his complete lack of interest is honestly very hard to watch, but he somewhat warms to her over a smoke outside and occasionally cracks a smile. This is real life, and the end of another year.
Even after 1000 rambling words I have not even begun to get under the skin of Another Year. I've left out the nuances of Leigh's finest screenplay in decades, the pitch-perfect performances of every cast member and haven't even mentioned at least two vitally important characters. In order to convey - with any kind of accuracy - exactly how good this film is, I would need another 1000 words. At the end of the day all I can say is this - if you've ever liked a Mike Leigh film, you'll love Another Year. It's everything that's great about his cinema. It's dramatic yet honest, witty yet raw, funny and depressing - it's a slice of life from a wise auteur who somehow seems to be getting even better with each passing year. I can only imagine where he goes from here, but until then Another Year will reward another dozen re-watches with its depth of feeling and pure heart... I need not say it, but I shall. It's a masterpiece.