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You could ask yourself throughout "Another Year" whether it is a film about a happy couple or a film about their unhappy acquaintances. While the answer could be a little of both, there is a better answer, revealed memorably in the film's bold final shot. Until then, this slice of a middle-aged English couple and the people who are drawn to them mostly hits a pace and tone reminiscent of a parlor drama for the middle class. At 20, you may be bored; at 40, engrossed, and at 60, depending on how much of yourself you see here, the film may flat-out panic you.
"Another Year" follows Tom (an affable Jim Broadbent) and his gentle wife, Gerri (Ruth Sheen), through four seasons of a year. The calm of their life is strained when they welcome guests, like Mary (Lesley Manville), a co-worker of Gerri's, who tries to fill her loneliness with white wine, and makes overtures to her hosts' grown son, Joe (Oliver Maltman). Tom's friend Ken (Peter Wight) is a waiting heart attack with a lit fuse, and his brother Ronnie (David Bradley, appearing haunted) a cold contrast to Tom.
Director Mike Leigh (who's also up for an Oscar for his screenplay) includes little action to reveal his characters, choosing instead to rely on dialogue and, to no small extent, his characters' eating habits. Gerri and Tom, warm and contented, spend part of each season working in the garden — to mulch, to harvest, to clear frost-coated debris — and eat richly of their own cooking, and touch pre-packaged food only during a time of great stress in the film's final act. Mary, nervous and oblivious, talks only of eating takeaway and rarely finding the time to cook for just herself; she remarks to Gerri over an after-work wine that she never dated a man who could cook. Ken, gluttonous and bellows-breathed, noshes on bags of ketchup-flavored chips on the train and mows through his supper while scarcely lifting his eyes from the plate. Ronnie, morose and taciturn, cooks not. But he does, in a moment of attempted tenderness, offer to make someone toast.
At times the banter feels forced to a point of self-parody, with docile retorts that arrive too quickly. Perhaps happy families are indeed all happy in the same way, and to dwell on cheer is to concede that we have no story here. Individually the most profound moments for the lead couple come when they confront a destructive personality in their midst — this harmony of the house may look effortless, but like a vegetable bed, it requires the diligent weeding.
The lingering foil to that notion is Mary, aging and alone after two blown marriages. Superficially she's chatty and voluble, perhaps even kind-hearted, but labors under so many layers of sadness that she can no longer connect with others except on the topic of herself. Manville has been recognized on the awards circuit both as a lead and as a supporting actress for her performance, which surely contains a plurality of the script's word count and which, another year from now, will be the first thing people think of when they recall the film. There are clues throughout as to the depths of her problems. Perhaps none is more glaring than her late arrival at a picnic dinner party in which she prattles about her drive over — without first noticing the presence of an infant at the table. Portraits of sadness abound in film. There is wrongfully convicted sad, death-of-a-child sad, "I wish I knew how to quit you" sad, "Take my little girl!" sad, and the rest. If it wasn't already in the canon, Manville vaults self-isolating spinster sad into the bleakest we've seen.