I expected to like Mike Leigh’s Another Year more than I did, my expectations raised in part because it is small scale and character-driven, because director Mike Leigh is a good filmmaker, and because some critics (e.g. A.O. Scott and Liam Lacey) report that the film has a serious central theme, happiness. But despite its several virtues, I found the film mostly tedious and shallow.
A film’s theme isn’t necessarily happiness in general just because half of the characters are miserable and half are happy. Another Year leaves the largest questions of happiness to philosophers, neuro-scientists, and self-help authors. Another Year seems far more narrowly to suggest one apparent necessity for happiness: being in a loving relationship. The coupled people are happy, and the single ones are miserable.
All of the actors are very good here, the best probably being Leslie Manville. She certainly has the most demanding role, playing Mary, a shallow, tedious, needy, risible, narcissistic chatterer. Unfortunately, none of us want to spend much time around such a person, whether it is a character as well played as Mary, or a real person.
Mary is on camera so much, despite not having any character growth, that Leslie Manville apparently had little choice but to continually intensify the character’s misery to the point at which in real life anyone around her would have called a psychiatric ambulance or the police. Surely few actors could have played that role for that many minutes without tipping into absurdity.
Each character is interesting enough, but everything important that we learn about each character is learned within the first few minutes. The film dwells on Mary, and while we see her decline into greater misery, there is no character arc for her, and there are no revelations of her character or backstory.
Chekov demonstrated that even quiet, reticent drawing room gatherings have tremendous potential so long as characters develop, secrets are revealed, and the play’s forward movement never stalls. In this film, forward movement stalls.
Character revelation is less important for minor characters, of course, like the helpless slob Ken, the laconic widower, and the widower’s angry son. Tom and Gerri, the central characters, experience lesser character arcs than their tomato plants. As a geological engineer, Tom bores deeply into the earth to see what construction can be supported, an apt metaphor for how the director might have developed this film.
I suspect that the shallowness is a result of Mike Leigh’s directing method, if Another Year was developed by the fascinating improvisational method that Leigh described in 1999 (see questions 6 and 10 here) and in 2005 (here). This process probably emphasizes character interaction within scenes, while it loses some of the plot and character coherence and complexity better achieved by a single screenwriter.
Karina Longworth of the Village Voice thinks far less of this film than I do, but several critics adore it, including The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, and The Telegraph’s David Gritton. They might be right; after all, when was the last time The Guardian and The Telegraph agreed on anything? (January 18, 2011)