Mike Leigh’s strange new film is thought-provoking. I’m not sure if it can be called “good.” It focuses on one year in the life of a middle-aged woman named Mary, in the course of which we learn that—well—she doesn’t have much of a life. She works as a secretary at a counseling clinic and occasionally goes out for a drink with a staff counselor named Gerry, who listens patiently to Mary’s daffy, long-winded analyses of her past mistakes and future prospects with something more than professional courtesy. The two are long-time friends, in fact, and it appears that Mary has been invited to dinner parties given by Gerry and her husband Tom on numerous occasions, though less often lately.
Early on in the film, we learn that Mary married young, got divorced, took up with a married man, got dumped, and now finds herself entering a lonely middle age with few comforts except a seemingly ever-present bottle of wine. Tom and Gerry, on the other hand, are a mellow couple who cook together, garden together, and read magazines on the sofa together. They have a grown son named Joe who’s on his own now but still enjoys their company.
When Mary comes over for dinner, it seems almost an act of charity on Gerry’s part. As Mary proceeds to get soused once again, Tom and Gerry humor her as well as they can. It’s painful for us in the audience, too, listening to Mary’s good-natured but delusional monologues.
The pain is amplified by the arrival of Tom’s old high school buddy Ken, a Sad Sack if ever there was one. Ken drinks too much, eats too much, smokes too much, and seldom shaves. He and Tom no longer have much in common beyond an occasional flash of adolescent rough-housing camaraderie. At an afternoon garden party held during Ken’s brief visit, he takes a liking to Mary, who finds him repulsive. She, meanwhile, begins to fancy young Joe, suggesting they go out for a drink some time.
The conversations are uniformly slow-moving and uninspired. How are you? How are you? Fine. Fine. I got a new car. What color? Would you like another glass of wine? I’m going to have one. What holds our interest is, first and foremost, the performance of Lesley Manville, who as Mary, delivers up an unending tour de force of nervous tics, hopeful glances, troubled shudders, wistful asides, and other indefinable and mercurial expressions. It’s also interesting to watch the expressions of Tom and son Joe, because it’s clear they both have a well-developed sense of humor, and as Mary prattles on, it’s difficult to tell where the graciousness and courtesy stop and silent mockery begins.
The film’s plot (such as it is) thickens when Tom’s sister-in-law dies and the family heads north to the funeral. And it really picks up steam when Joe brings a girl-friend home to meet the folks. Suddenly the conversations grow lively and we’re relieved to discover that Tom and Gerry are as interesting and articulate as we’ve suspected all along. The question arises: why have we been spending so much time with the likes of Mary, Ken, and Tom’s grief-stricken brother Ronnie?
The answer, I guess, is that Mike Leigh wants us to see what lives on the edge of abject loneliness look like, and to take note of how close that edge can be to “normal” life. Another Year is a film about compassion, but it’s also about “losers” and dead ends. Kindness and forbearance are admirable indeed, but the supply isn’t endless. As the atmosphere in Tom and Gerry’s household changes, Mary is cast further into the shadows and in the end, all Gerry can do is advise her to seek professional help.
Another Year isn’t much fun, but it has a haunting, unresolved, pathetic quality that’s memorable and rare.