13 November 2010

Mike Leigh's Another Year

I posted my reaction to Mike Leigh's last movie, Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), not that long ago, and now Leigh's Another Year (2010), which must be one of his best films to date, quietly explodes on the screen.

I watched it at Broadway in Nottingham, England. Almost forty years before, at the same movie theater that was then called Nottingham Film Theatre, I saw Bleak Moments (1971), the first movie by the then unknown Mike Leigh. The added bonus at the time I went there (a Saturday evening, I believe) was that Leigh himself appeared on stage to answer questions that the audience asked him about the movie they'd just watched. I found his answers fascinating, but the film itself much more so: Leigh's improvisational techniques - essentially beginning with a skeletal script and having the cast struggle their way through the dialog within those vague parameters - seemed to come from another, experimental world.

But Bleak Moments is basically just about two people, two shy people, incapable of expressing themselves, of transcending their own psychological constraints. Once more, we're in the same world as Jacques Brel's 'Les Timides' (who blush, tremble, and want to do so much more but dare not), or Morrissey's 'Ask' (where 'Shyness can stop you/From doing all the things in life/You'd like to'). The world where the shy dwell is perhaps the last territory that political correctness hasn't breached. But it is a kind of social illness, and social illness remains an area that Mike Leigh is still investigating.

But Another Year ('closer to death', to continue the unfinished phrase) isn't about shyness as such. It's about the ageing process, or perhaps more exactly the effects of the ageing process. It's about the need for love, and is otherwise Houellebecqian in depicting the sex-contented and the sex-discontented. Or, er, whatever.

Tom (a geological engineer) and Gerri (an NHS counselor), both perhaps in their early sixties, are happily married both emotionally and (it is once suggested) sexually, and they entertain a few friends, one of whom is Mary, a secretary who works at the same place as Gerri, and they've known one another for twenty years. Mary has had relationships, but they have failed, and she is now reduced to sponging off the sympathy of Tom and Gerri, testing it to its limits as she paradoxically camouflages her desperation in alcohol abuse. She longs for a kind of relationship with Tom and Gerri's son Joe - who is twenty years younger - and then she feels great jealousy when he finds a girlfriend. Hungover after buying champagne with the paltry sum of money she's received for the scrap metal value of a car she's just written off, she invites herself into Tom and Gerri's home, and asks a stranger - Tom's bereaving brother Ronnie - if he wants a cuddle. The desperate lives Leigh's characters lead aren't always quiet, and anyway Leigh's silences often deafen.

Toward the end, Tom and Gerri's future daughter-in-law Katie - a little like the optimist Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky - exchanges necessary but essentially meaningless introductory pleasantries with Ronnie, but the camera doesn't show the faces of those speaking - only the dark clothes of the lower part of their bodies as the focus remains firmly on the hopeless expression of Mary. Just as the final scene shows the family in animated conversation as the camera pans from the insiders, through to the silent Ronnie, then rests on Mary's face. The talking is silenced as the camera, for a painful number of seconds, forces the viewer to dwell on the vacancy.

Mike Leigh continues to explore the world of outsiders. Whether they be young and shy - or ageing and angst-ridden.

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