Friday, May 21, 2010

Film Review: "Another Year"

“Another Year”
A film review by Jordan Overstreet

Director: Mike Leigh
Producer(s): Focus Features International
Screenplay: Mike Leigh
Main players: Jim Broadbent, Oliver Maltman, Lesley Manville, and Ruth Sheen

There is something sexy about watching the lives of others; it lies in the mystery of understanding who exactly these people are that you see in front of you; why do they act they way they do? When I read the description of Mike Leigh’s newest film venture, Another Year, I thought his study of a year in the life of a middle-class British couple, Gerri and Tom (Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent), would be the right entrée to feed the voyeur in my mind. Unfortunately, like too many of the official selection films at Cannes this May, Another Year was undercooked.

The film, written by Leigh, is divided into four segments: spring, summer, autumn, and winter; and begins in spring with a cameo by Imelda Staunton, a familiar face in Leigh’s films. Looking warn out, Staunton journeys to her physician for sleep aids. As Staunton’s doctor questions her about the cause of her sleep deprivation, Staunton suggests that all is not well in her marriage of twenty plus years. Leigh cuts to a shot of Tom working in his garden with Gerri as it begins to rain. They find shelter in a shed and as they eat their lunch in silence, the simplicity of their actions evokes a comfort. Leigh then cuts back to Staunton waiting on her prescription from her doctor. Before I realized that Tom and Gerri are married and the central characters of the film, I perceived this editing choice to imply that Staunton was the protagonist, meaning that she was married to Broadbent and it was his affair with Sheen which created the problems Staunton reveals to her physician. I was terribly disappointed to see Staunton vanish from the screen for her character had depth. Here was a woman on the edge of her sanity and I was interested in why her family exhausted her so. I wanted to know if she would succumb to her inner demons like her alcoholic husband. Very Tennessee Williams of me, I admit, but there was something to her character. As for the main fixtures of the film, Tom and Gerri, there is nothing sexy about them. Their relationship is painfully simple and is so beige and as the seasons wear on, watching them interact is about as fun as watching paint dry. I am not suggesting that Gerri needs to throw a glass egg at Tom, or that Tom go and screw of friend of Gerri’s. I would, however, like them to do something other than thwart the comedic genius that is Lesley Manville.

The grieving period for Staunton’s disappearance is short thanks to the arrival of Mary, a secretary in the hospital where Gerri is a therapist. Single, husbandless, and childless, Mary is well on the path to becoming an old maid. But unlike the staunch feminists commonly played by Katherine Hepburn throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, Mary is nothing short of a wild ass. Wearing low cut blouses and short skirts, Mary brings sexy back into this humdrum drama. When Mary and Gerri go out for drinks, the bottle of white wine shared between the two is disproportionally shared. Mary, well in her cups, notices an attractive older man sitting alone and attempts to grab his attention, but a younger blonde saunters in and greets him with a kiss. Its not that Mary wants to be alone, she just cannot seem to find her proper mate.

Summer ushers in Ken (Peter Wight), an overweight alcoholic smoking fiend, who seems to be battling demons of his own. An old friend of Tom’s, Ken appears to be tie that the couple just cannot cut. Mary and Ken share several minuets on screen, during which the nature of their relationship is instantly established when Ken greets a skittish Mary with a slobbery, wet kiss on the cheek. Ken is downright foul and no one wants to see him end up with Mary. Gerri and Tom’s son, Joe (Oliver Maltman) soon becomes the object of Mary’s affection. In his early thirties and single, Joe, like Mary, cannot seem to find the right mate and falls victim to many of Mary’s flirtatious advances. Envious of the simplicity of Gerri and Tom’s life, Mary sees Joe as a means to enter their world. However, during the autumn segment, Joe brings his lively lady friend, Katie (Karina Fernandez), to his parent’s home for dinner, Mary is crushed and her lack of manners towards Katie strains Mary’s friendship with Gerri. When Gerri closes her door to Mary, Sheen’s coldness comes off as mean and unnecessary. Moreover, it puts an end to the only compelling aspect of the film--Mary.

Winter is just depressing and sad. The wife of Tom’s brother dies and the funeral shenanigans feel like a large digression from the plot, but it’s the year of Gerri and Tom so boredom is to be expected. Mary’s arrival is unwelcomed by Gerri and her once cute quirks are now a nuisance. As Joe and Katie’s marriage takes center stage, there is no room for Mary--a pitiful ending to such a vibrant character.

The presentation of the film, in contrast, is well done. The seasons are beautiful well defined by cinematographer Dick Pope. As the story turns from the comedic to dramatic, the lighter spring yellows and pinks transition to the blues and grays of winter.

I still don’t know what Leigh was trying to say with Another Year. Was it a celebration of human relationships? Was it made to make us fear being alone? Or was it just another year? At best, Leigh explains that life takes on a cyclical nature, for it is obvious that Mary will be the next Staunton. Nevertheless, as a lover of dysfunctional families and dramas that explore these bonds, I was not satisfied. Where was the film’s heart? Passion? Nonexistent. I found myself wondering, if I was thirteen again and I stumbled upon Gerri and Tom in their kitchen, would I be inspired? Perhaps if Mary was sitting at the table, downing her sorrows in a large glass of white wine, my voyeuristic curiosity would be peaked. All I do know is that if Gladys Kravitz lived next-door to these people, I doubt very much that she would spend her time huddled by her window spying on their behavior.

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