Friday, March 25, 2011
Review of Another Year
I’ve always been intrigued (read: suspicious) when people opine that something is “good for what it is.” The expression sounds incomplete somehow, as though the speaker really wants to add a closing parenthetical comment: “(which is bad).” “Good for what it is,” when I’ve heard it or used it myself, feels like a vague apology for not liking something more, or else a need to identify as someone who can intellectually recognize quality even when one is emotionally unmoved by it.
There’s an odd sensation in seeing a movie that you expect to love and then don’t. Disappointment, of course, but beyond that, you can actually feel badly, inadequate somehow, like you’ve missed something; or you might wonder if it was your very anticipation that set the film up for failure, as though perhaps you jinxed it. There’s a form of guilt awaiting name here. Optimist’s guilt perhaps. When I saw the trailer for Mike Leigh’s Another Year, I had a deeply instinctive and simple response: “yes yes yes yes yes!” Actually seeing the film brought sadness: the alluring aroma of the meal was undone by its consumption.
I do believe that Another Year is very good for what it is, but that what it actually is, to me, isn’t actually very good.
Mike Leigh is a wonderfully gifted filmmaker and his oft-cited organic approach to creating character and finding story couldn’t excite me more. It leads to natural performances, authentic dialogue, and messy-like-life-is scenes. Another Year focuses on a 60ish couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), and, as the title suggests, takes its cue from the seasons and follows a four-part structure. In each part, the couple is seen relating with the various (and varyingly dysfunctional) people in their lives, mostly through dinner parties and pails of alcohol. The bulk of the film’s attention goes to repeated dinner guest Mary, a long-time co-worker of Gerri’s, whose unhappiness is a deep dark well; she is an attention addict and highly skilled leech.
Without wanting to sound “aren’t they cute?” about it, it’s really delightful simply to see old people on screen. And not just actors who are slightly balding or graying (as code for ‘this is meant to be an older person’), but actors with real turkey wattles, genuinely drooping faces and sagging bodies. Age has entered and settled in for Tom and Gerri, not merely affixed itself to their surfaces. You so rarely see images of the actually old in film, and Another Year reminds us of why that’s such a shame.
Completely unlike their cartoon namesakes, Tom and Gerri are a picture of serenity. They come across as a couple that not only have their shit figured out, but did so such a long time ago they’ve forgotten that shit could even exist. You want to curl up with them as they read before bed, dig in their garden alongside them, smell that spaghetti sauce they’re cooking, and definitely pull up a seat at their kitchen table. But because they’re so sorted and zen, they’re actually rather dull, blank slates in their own film. Characters that are tranquil, grounded and largely unaffected by the goings-on around them, or unaltered by the deep dysfunction they see are very admirable, but pretty flat. Perhaps as a result, Broadbent and Sheen are totally fine in these roles.
As Mary, Lesley Manville painfully nails the snivelling, twitchy, too much eye make-up essence of 40-something unmarried misery. Mary’s only solace is sucking back cigarettes, downing filled-to-the-brim glasses of white wine, and relying (super-heavily) on the kindness of anyone. (There is indeed more than a whiff of Blanche DuBois here). We all have friends like Mary, though hopefully not quite as far gone. They are our friends because they are our friends, not because we actually enjoy their company. Mary is very hard to like, but easy to worry about. In a very slow pan around the table in the film’s final dinner party, we wait for her to be revealed, anxiously wondering where she might have gone off to. At times the film feels a bit manipulative of our concern for her well-being; in the opening of the film’s fourth part, when clearly someone has died, we’re left wondering for a while if it’s her.
The problem with characters like Mary (or the real people in our lives that she epitomizes) is that they can’t actually have relationships with other people. All you can really do is watch them have relationships with themselves, and that’s usually why they want you around (despite their pitiable states, they’re still narcissists after all). Tom and Gerri are bundles of tolerance, patience and support when it comes to Mary’s self-indulgent tedium, and, though that’s very sweet of them, what results is a notable lack of conflict in the film. There’s a fine line between understanding people’s neuroses and enabling them, and I felt Leigh missed an opportunity to investigate our motivations in playing largely silent bystanders to the self-destruction of others.
Attention to motivation indeed felt largely absent; in several scenes, what characters were trying to accomplish or what they actually wanted was very unclear. “But aren’t real people like that? Difficult to read, impossible to know, often even to themselves?” Yes, for sure, absolutely; and mysterious motivations can be interesting, but they can also just be misleading. If subtext feels too fluid – “hmm they could mean just about anything by that” – then your characters feel undeveloped, and your story’s themes a little too up for grabs. For instance, everyone seems a little too willing to witness the train wreck that is Mary, and yet, as mentioned above, we’re not given much insight into why.
In the end, that uneasy feeling I had leaving the theatre was essentially my confusion about what I could take away from the film. Clearly the title suggests that nothing here is supposed to be especially remarkable, or add up to anything particular; it’s just another year. But as a movie audience you’re trained to resist such randomness and lack of cohesion and while it seems that Leigh is playing with the resulting tension, I’m not sure it pays off. An appreciated role of a novel or film, or any art piece for that matter, is its ability to gather life’s random events like so many stray cats and give them some kind of form. You don’t have to necessarily get those cats marching together in perfect time, but getting them into a pile can be rather useful.
I appreciate the “but life is just like that” argument; I really do. I’m someone who mostly gravitates towards very simple stories that focus on “normal” people; it’s exactly why I responded so strongly to the trailer for Another Year. But perhaps the weave here is simply too loose, the holes too big, and the dangling threads too many. And that “the life is like that” defense doesn’t ultimately fly high enough to pull it all off the ground.