The Good Life
Rand Richards Cooper March 14, 2011 - 11:47am
The annual Oscar postmortem is the time for second-guessing and bitter complaint, and in that spirit I want to blast the near-total exclusion from this year’s honors of British director Mike Leigh’s quiet masterpiece Another Year. It’s the rare director who dares defy Tolstoy’s dismissal of the happy family (they’re all alike) and take on the daunting subject of the successful marriage. But Leigh does, with insightful and heartbreaking results.
The setup of Another Year could hardly be simpler. Over the course of four seasons we follow Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a sixtyish couple living in a comfortable (but not opulent) section of London. He’s a geologist, she’s a therapist—in the film’s opening scene we see her counseling a client whose marriage has left her catatonically depressed—and together they emanate an attractive aura of 1960s idealism adapted to a thoroughly happy, mildly irreverent middle-class life. Avid gardeners, they spend long hours together working in their allotment garden, and the film is divided into episodes titled by the seasons of the year.
The foil to Tom and Gerri’s cozy domesticity comes in the form of Mary (Lesley Manville), a secretary in Gerri’s office and a longtime friend. Childless, bearing the psychic scars of a failed marriage and many bad affairs, Mary is the kind of friend whose visits one anticipates with a guilty shiver of dread. She’s needy, histrionic, and fragile; she’s always talking, and too often drunk. The film chronicles several evenings together over the course of the year on which she behaves badly, prompting the gradual withdrawal by Tom and Gerri from a friendship which, we sense, was offered more in charity than affinity in the first place.
Leigh, whose previous films include Naked and Secrets & Lies, has dedicated his career to showing us people as they really are. In Another Year his cameraman, Dick Pope, zooms in on faces and their flaws—crow’s-feet, bad makeup, buckteeth, and weak chins, the whole catalogue of human imperfections typically banished from Hollywood movies. Such realism helps Leigh focus on the indignities of aging. But dignity, he deftly reminds us, lies in the attitude of the possessor. Gerri, thoroughly comical-looking—and happily married—wouldn’t be troubled to think that she’s neither the youngest nor the sexiest woman around. Mary, on the other hand, single and still anxiously charting her value in the dating market, quakes at the toll age is taking on her looks. In one scene in a bar, she covertly eyes a handsome middle-aged man who is apparently alone, only to be crushed when a woman—a much younger woman—emerges from the ladies room and starts canoodling with the guy.
It’s just another of the thousand little cuts that age administers to vanity, and over the course of the year Mary increasingly responds with cringe-making overtures—even to Tom and Gerri’s thirty-year-old son, Joe, who’s at least twenty-five years her junior. “I feel liberated,” she says, in an embarrassing flirtation, when he asks politely how she’s been doing lately. “I feel like Thelma and Louise!” Later, when Joe shows up at a dinner party with a new girlfriend, Katie, Mary reacts with naked aggression, staring daggers and attacking the girl verbally.
Another Year juxtaposes mythic social spaces in pursuit of a fundamental dichotomy. It’s the world of the bar versus that of the home; the hard and risky life of hunter-gatherers versus the safer, far more nourishing one of the -farmer-domesticators. For Mary, the bar is ground zero in a frantic battle against the waning of erotic power. Tom and Gerri, meanwhile, make the rounds of kitchen and garden, exercising their quietly spectacular domesticity as if in a sort of connubial competition, his uxoriousness versus her maritoriousness. As for erotic power, their bedroom comes across as simply another venue for affectionate companionship—the two of them sitting propped up in bed night after night, reading and chatting.
Leigh’s low-key, well-observed realism tilts at large underlying meanings. Seasonality and the passage of time—another year, another ring in the tree of life—and the protective bastion that is marriage: these themes may be obvious, yet they prove deeply moving. The continuity provided by Tom and Gerri’s marriage, we understand, is not a way of cheating time, nor of ignoring it, but of living in it. In bed one night, Tom looks up with a sigh from the thick tome he’s reading and muses that he disliked history in school, but now finds himself drawn to it. “The older you get,” he says, “the more relevant it seems.” Gerri peers at him for a moment over her glasses. “We’ll be history soon,” she observes. Tom: “Exactly.” If coming to terms with mortality, both one’s own and each other’s, is one gauge of a spiritual life well lived—and of an effective partnership in marriage—then Tom and Gerri are doing well indeed. Where Mary roils inwardly, they remain serene, moving steadily and productively through their lives with gentleness, humor...and more than a touch of complacency.
This last ingredient brings out in Another Year, and in us, an ambivalence crucial to the film’s success. We like and admire Tom and Gerri; and yet as they sit in bed with their books and glasses of wine, commenting on Mary’s poor behavior—“Disappointing,” Gerri says, and Tom: “Really sad”—we can’t help but note how comfortable they are with the act of judging such sad truths in others. And it isn’t just Mary. There’s the old friend who’s slowly killing himself with food and cigarettes and drink; and there’s Tom’s newly widowed brother, dazed by grief and burdened with a thuggish grown son who hates him. These disasters set Tom and Gerri’s own happiness in still brighter relief, and they know it and like it. It is hard to live well, it seems, without congratulating yourself just a little bit.
But such hints of smugness don’t detract from the warmth and richness of their marriage. I’d be hard-pressed to cite a film that conveys a more attractive, authentic feeling of family life well-lived—its comforts and laughter, its deep mutual knowledge, in short, its familiarity. This quality is summed up in scenes around the table in Tom and Gerri’s kitchen, a room festooned with photos and other mementos of decades together. Avidly the family talks and talks, trading recollections of trips abroad, bantering and teasing one another with in-house jokes worn smooth over the years. (Tom, to his wife and to Joe’s girlfriend, also a social worker: “You’re in the caring professions—my problem is, I don’t care! I’m a geologist!” They, to him: “You dig holes!”) It’s a supremely comfy life, a life of old clothes and high spirits. Anyone who grew up knowing a family like this—whose rowdy, interesting conversation and casual joie de vivre around the dinner table made one’s own family dinners seem like a wake—will know instantly the mix of admiration, envy, longing, and bafflement it inspires in a visitor. Bourgeois happiness and solidity—what a thing to behold!
Approaching seventy, Leigh has enough of the Angry Young Man in him, and is sufficiently steeped in British New Cinema, to add just the right note of alienation, to question as much as praise. Is bourgeois family happiness an accomplishment, a thing earned—or is it just luck? The film puts into play competing answers and lets us inhabit all of them in turn. In its closing scene, the camera pans slowly across the dinner table, taking in the animated, chattering faces of Tom, Gerri, Joe, and Katie, only to end, in a devastating final frame, with a study of Mary, sitting there harrowed and silent. How is it that others reached this bliss, while she found only dead ends? How has she failed so badly at living a good life? Leigh’s seemingly unassuming study of friendship and marriage turns out to be a turbulent experience, jerking us back and forth between fulfillment and despair, the points of view of the haves and the have-nots in life’s unequal distribution of happiness.
No filmmaker today exceeds Mike Leigh in capturing unadorned human reality. And—here is my bitter blast—the fact that Lesley Manville, who should have won either Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress, failed to snag even a nomination is an embarrassment to Oscar, and a proof of the acid unfairness that this fine and penetrating movie portrays.
About the Author
Rand Richards Cooper, one of Commonweal's film critics, is the author of two works of fiction, The Last To Go and Big as Life.