American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Mike Leigh's "Another Year" (2011) is like a tender, swollen, beating heart that you hold within your palms: the soft flesh expands and contracts with every breath, and through the tiny crevices in between your fingers, life juices flow.
"Life is not always kind, is it?"
Gerri looks at Mary and quietly let those words slip. Mary catches her gaze, briefly. The letters settle over them like a mild fog, unmistakably present and non-disruptive, and the day proceeds on as it does.
Another day. Another year.
Through uncanny realism and probing characters, Leigh's latest film speaks of the pervasive dilemma of our kind: how do we live in this world in the presence of those so different and similar to ourselves at once? How do we make sense of each of our own way of life?
Such a universal question requires no less a spectrum of responses, and here Leigh displays them all at once: unfolding, progressing, occasionally infringing upon each others' space, occasionally crossing trajectories; and always, after a gentle readjustment, each proceeds onwards steadily as before with nothing short of a gentle benevolence. Change is not so easily undertaken as spoken.
Mary (Leslie Manville) knows the difficulties of change. She tastes it every day. From the moment she wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and carefully put on the powders, liners, rouge, and mascara that will mimic the glow of a youth which slips further and further away by the day, she tastes it. The mask weights heavy, but is necessary. Youth and beauty are the currency of our self-enforced culture and Mary lives within its confines. Within it's vague and undeniable circumference, she must try to find happiness, and in the process, create a life around it.
Gerri (Ruth Sheen) and Jim (Jim Broadbent), on the other hand, are the lucky ones. They have found that rare kind of domestic bliss, and simmer within it's all-encompassing glow. From the warmth of their cocoon, they look out with serenity, and observe those who are left in the chill. They see Mary, and they feel for her. They feed her, invite her into their home, and give her tomatoes from their garden to take away. But even if love can be home-grown, it doesn't quite taste the same when gifted as charity. The sentiments may be organic, but their transfer is not.
Another day. Another year.
Life is not always kind to its inhabitants, as Gerri observed, and Ken (Peter Wight) knows. An old friend of the couple, Ken shows up on a visit that feels all too familiar: booze, junk food, booze, more food, booze, cigarette, booze, booze. Repeat. Gerri and Jim look on with saintly patience, provide him with his vices of choice, and lends a shoulder to cry on when necessary. But what can they do? Life has laden Ken with extra weight that he carries both around his middle and on his soul. Like a deadbolt it has locked him in that lonely place of self-exile and middle age desperation, where company seems so dire, and those of yesterday have slipped away with frightening speed.
Another day. Another year.
People are not kind to their own lives either. Ken admonishes the young folks who make so much ruckus, that it is impossible for him to go out to a bar anymore, until Tom reminds him that he, too, was once one of those young folks. "Oh, yeah." The recognition doesn't sink in with humor as intended. Like wading water, the splashes lose their appeal when you suddenly find yourself in the deep end, struggling to stay afloat.
Another day. Another year.
The most difficult kindness, though, is probably those between ordinary people like ourselves. Mary sees Ken, and is repulsed. She sees an overweight, lonely, sad, binge-drinking, chain-smoking person who is desperate for company and affection, and she wants nothing to do with him. Ken sees Mary, and is hopeful. He sees a lovely, lonely, sad, binge-drinking, chain-smoking person who is desperate for company and affection too, and he thought maybe they can do all those things together, and maybe shed the loneliness and sadness along the way. Unfortunately, Mary can't see past the physical weight on Ken, nor does she understand the depth of its matching emotional comrade shadowing her own existence. The weight is the same, just distributed differently. Ken wears it on his belt, Mary in her eyes.
"We are very lucky." Gerri says.
"Yeah, you are. But you deserve it. You are both such lovely people." Mary smiles, and takes another gulp of her wine.
Is it luck, or is it something more? What does happiness depend on? How do we steer ourselves onto the path of companionship and contentment? These are the ultimate questions facing every human being, and they drive our daily existences into a frenzy. Despite the self-help books, talk shows, health clubs, online clubs, the magical formula remains as elusive as ever. Miraculously, Leigh does not attempt to solve the puzzle here. Instead, he guides us along the trajectories of the lives of these average people, and show us what it means to be alive, what it takes, and how these lovely people, and in turn us, manage to do it.
In the end, it comes down to managing. We manage our lives and all the messy, imperfect, unsatisfying bits of it. For most of us, we don't lack food, shelter, or comforts of daily living. For most of us, we are luckier than many others. For most of us, we are the lucky ones, and yet it doesn't feel that way.
"It's lovely having your dinner cooked for you," Mary gushes, "you don't really bother when you're by yourself, do you? Well I don't anyway."
Leslie Manville is ravishing as Mary: intimate, nuanced, revealing, heartbreaking, but never cliché. She bring us not Mary the character, but Mary the person, someone with a past, a present, and a daunting future. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen wear Tom and Gerri like well-worn pajamas, with all their recognizable wrinkles and rubbed patches, soaked through with care and good intentions. Peter Wight literally disappears into Ken, and the scene of him in the garden, reduced to sobs, buried in booze and old friends, is almost too painful to watch. He springs all your mid-life nightmares to life, and there is nowhere else to look. Oliver Maltman, as Joe, the son of Gerri and Jim, is a breath of fresh air. His performance is not to be overshadowed even in the presence of the great Manville: on a porch to an old tree house, in the shade, Joe has a conversation with Mary that reveals multitudes of both their backgrounds and personality. As Mary exclaims and explains and exudes and reflects, Joe sits there, eyes trained on her face, and says all the right words - not too much, not a false note. Even Katie, Joe's new girlfriend, played by Karina Fernandez, is as vibrant and endearing as she could and should be, without all the potential downfall of politeness and fake coiffed perfection.
If the cast is shockingly and uniformly excellent, so must be said of their conductor Mike Leigh, who despite being known as a director possessing great sensitivity and human insights, is perhaps at his artistic peak here. Where as his previous films have mostly spanned mere weeks or months, here we stay for a whole year. Where as previous films have focused on one main character ("Vera Drake", "Happy Go Lucky"), here is a slew of main characters, each solid and lovable. Moreover, "Another Year" feels like a maturation of Leigh's most prevalent themes: why do we do what we do, and how do we live and be happy while doing it? Here, through the inviting spring, hot summer, chilly autumn, and dreary winter, answers are sought, and eventually gained and lost by all.
"Oh the baby!"
Life is not always kind. Luckily, a film can be.
And indeed this is a story of kindness: life's kindness to us, our kindness to life, and our kindness to each other. It is not always possible to see it, but it is at least comforting to feel it, to be bathed in its benevolent glow, than to be left out in the cold.
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