Silence is highly underrated, and Mike Leigh knows it. In his newest film, Another Year, he shows certain characters constantly competing to fill gaps in conversations with words, no matter how ill-thought out or banal they might be, and any solitary, silent contemplation comes as a welcome relief. At times, it makes for an uncomfortably realistic watch, and is made even more so by the semi-improvised script that is Leigh’s trademark. Yet though Another Year lacks any rigid or strict plotting – aside from the distinctly seasonal four act structure – this is a film brimming with ideas as well as emotions, offering profound and melancholic meditations on life, death and loneliness.
The film follows Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) – they have learned to live with the joke – a happy couple approaching retirement, whose only regular pastime is to tend to their allotment. Around their contented existence orbit several, usually lonely, souls, including their perpetually single son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), an old alcoholic friend, Ken (Peter Wight), and, most importantly, Mary (Lesley Manville). Hers is a heartbreaking character, as Manville expertly communicates her intense isolation and desperate need to find someone, both in her frantic, fill-the-silence monologues and her quieter moments, staring into space. She is a character desperate for acceptance, and could easily become irritating, but Manville’s beautifully judged performance prevents this, and instead, with her enormous eyes perpetually threatening to spill over with tears, she is the film’s greatest strength.
Leigh is famous for his unique filmmaking process, which begins without a script and instead allows the film to take shape over a six-month rehearsal process with the actors. This commitment pays off dividends here, as every character is fully formed and utterly real, for which credit must go not only to the performances but also to Leigh’s subtle and skilful direction.
He knows exactly how long the camera should watch a face, and always finds the moment when the façade breaks down and we see the heartbreak or happiness underneath.
Thankfully, we are never forced to spend any time with a protagonist as irritating as Poppy, the perpetually, insufferably positive heroine of his last film, Happy-Go-Lucky. Instead, this is a film populated by very real, familiar characters devoid of gimmickry, and is all the more effective for it.
Leigh’s films regularly show fascination with the less glamorous, often banal sides of life, and even seem to celebrate it. This certainly true here, and despite the Vaughn Williams-esque soundtrack, Another Year is thankfully lacking in artificial emotion ready-made for audience consumption. Instead, Leigh allows his actors and their carefully crafted, uncomfortably familiar characters to communicate their most secret thoughts and feelings, often without ever saying a word. The film begins and ends with a heart-breaking close-up of a character wrestling with their own loneliness, and each moment is filled with far more emotional power than any swelling strings or tearful confessions could summon up. It is a phenomenally mature, understated film that simultaneously overflows with all the emotions of life, presenting joy and misery in equal measure, and shows that the sexagenarian Leigh still remains one of Britain’s greatest living directors.