In my orgasmically entertaining 2011 Oscar prediction post, I revealed that I was rooting for Mike Leigh to win Best Original Screenplay for Another Year, even though I hadn’t seen it. Based on the consistent excellence of his previous work, in which the writer/director developed characters in quiet, organic ways, I figured that Another Year would be yet another relatively profound study of everyday human beings.
Well, I have finally seen the thing. And wouldn’t you know it, I don’t just agree with my February 2011 self, I applaud me! Because Another Year is more than the latest reminder that Leigh is one of our finest storytellers – it’s his best movie in a while. A look at four seasons in the life of the happily married couple Tom and Gerri (no surnames are mentioned in the film, which could be a comment about the balance that’s essential to a great relationship, or more likely I’m overthinking things because I’ve had a few beers), Leigh’s creation is the rarest kind of movie in the 21st century – a commentary on the power of love that in no way resembles the plot of a Taylor Swift song. Tom and Gerri – portrayed with gentle confidence by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen – are seemingly the lone signpost of warmth and positivity in the lives of their friends Mary and Ken; their easygoing, loving natures bringing both characters to tears in heartbreakingly believable scenes.
Lesley Manville gets the Oscar-baitiest role here as Mary, Gerri’s hopelessly adrift co-worker who is painfully alone, yet prefers a fantasy relationship with Tom and Gerri’s son Joe to the very real (and very awkward) proposition from the comparably miserable, compulsive eating Ken. But where, say, Darren Aronofsky would wring every last drop of melodrama out of a character like Mary – full of crying jags in the shower and screamy nervous breakdowns during traffic jams – Leigh leaves it all up to his great actress. When Joe brings his new girlfriend home for the first time, the look on Manville’s face is all you need to learn just how far gone she really is.
Over the four quadrants of his movie, marked by scenes of Tom and Gerri lovingly tending their garden plot, Leigh shows us the unhappiness of regular folks, dealing with sadness, disappointment and death through the eyes of two of the lucky ones. It’s a movie about how beautiful it can be to grow old together, without ever forcing its graying characters to act young and spunky in the name of a cheap laugh. Which is light years more meaningful, and genuinely more entertaining, than the eventual winner for Best Original Screenplay, The King’s Speech.
With the afterglow of Another Year still washing over me, I re-watched Topsy-Turvy, Leigh’s 1999 Gilbert and Sullivan biopic that remains his closest attempt to a big-budget Hollywood spectacle. Of course, it isn’t one of those, despite the faithful recreations of several of the duo’s productions, full of inspired costumes and ornate set designs. But it is a different experience from all of the other Leigh films I’ve seen, its compelling studies of the two leads competing with charming behind-the-scenes glimpses of the inner workings of late-19th century theater. Its two-and-a-half-hour running time and extended chunks of Gilbert and Sullivan productions make it sound like an insufferably boring thing, but as in Another Year, Leigh’s ability to draw honest performances from his actors turns something bland into meaningful entertainment. Especially wonderful here are Broadbent and Manville, playing against their Another Year roles. Broadbent is the blustery one here; his Gilbert is the epitome of a bitchy artist – fuming over negative reviews, complaining about the trappings of high praise. Manville, as Gilbert’s wife Lucy, delivers a performance full of the pursed looks and defeated sighs of a neglected spouse. In Topsy-Turvy’s penultimate scene, Lucy shares her idea for a play with her husband, as he sits on the side of her separate bed. It’s a deft depiction of a withered relationship before one last song and dance, a snapshot of Leigh and his actors at the top of their game.