I generally avoid reading reviews until I’ve made my own conclusions. It’s a precaution against accidental plagiarism or having my opinion subtly altered. In the case of Another Year though, I felt safe. I was so convinced of my position, so sure of my assessment, I didn’t feel the usual need for prudence. I couldn’t imagine that the professionals would really have such a different viewpoint then my own. This assumption lead me to the Rotten Tomatoes rating of this film: 92%. It led me to rave reviews from Ebert and Travers and Scott. And more than anything, it entrenched my position that Mike Leigh‘s Another Year is one of the worst movies I’ve seen in a good long while. It is as smug and self-satisfied as its two chief characters, and leaves the viewer with nothing but questions. I don’t know what movie everybody else is watching, but Writer/Director Mike Leigh’s latest is a pretentious cipher of a film and, to put it plainly, not worth the film it was printed on.
Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen)–yes, their names are Tom and Gerri, a bizarre choice referred to only once and never explained–are as happy in their decades-old marriage as two 19-year-olds who’ve never had to deal with any sort of conflict. Their love for one another is unbelievably pure and one-dimensional, and their exchanges are boring, with the two characters pulling laughs from each other far more often then Leigh is able to get them from the audience. Their son Joe (Oliver Maltman) is just another piece in their contentedness puzzle, and arrives at their door with pocketfuls of cheeky banter; the kind of dialogue that makes you want to punch somebody. Leigh apparently presents all of this flimsy happiness so that he can in turn contrast Tom and Gerri’s truly miserable friends, primarily the lonely alcoholic Mary (Lesley Manville). Mary and Gerri have worked together for decades, and while Gerri has aged gracefully, Mary has held on dearly to her youth, and has ended up alone. She sees the young Joe as the potential savior of her withered love, but this was never truly in the cards. When Joe brings home an appropriately-aged girl named Katie (Karina Fernandez), and this perpetually cornball threesome becomes four, Mary reacts with the slighted anger of one looking from the outside in. Gerri–who, incidentally, is a professional therapist–responds to Mary’s childish anger with months of cold shouldering at work, and eventually forces the pitiful woman to apologize to her and agree to see a therapist. Gerri, with all the fake wisdom of one lucky enough to have found full blown and unworked for contentedness, insists that the lonesome, boozing stress ball at her front door apologize to her. And you know how this movie ends? Mary, along with Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley)–a zombie of a man whose wife just died–sit down to dinner with Tom, Gerri, Joe and Katie, and listen to yet another of the film’s many conversations illuminating this lucky family’s joie de vivre. As the foursome chuckle their way toward another night’s peaceful repose, the camera centers on the miserable Mary, her anguish more distinct then ever before.
I’ve taken a few writing classes and I’ve read a few screenplay books, and you know what I’ve learned? A story needs conflict, a story needs an arch, a story needs resolution, and characters need to change. These are fundamental story-telling tenets; as ingrained in the bylaws as anything. Guess what, not one of these elements is present in Another Year. This film so shockingly disregards the basic elements of storytelling, it’s as though Leigh is just screwing around, seeing what he can get away with. For some reason the experiment seems to have worked, though I surely can’t see how. The reason a story needs an arch and characters need to change, is because there’s nothing to see otherwise. At 129 minutes, Another Year isn’t even a short film, and alarmingly, nothing happens.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Leigh isn’t as interested in telling a story as he is in doing a character study. Fine. Except that, ignoring the fact that it’s not even clear who Leigh wants us to like, there’s not a likable character in the damn movie. Broadbent’s Tom comes the closest, but even his charm ends up feeling paper-thin. Mary possesses enough necessary traits to be considered sympathetic, but is played so melodramatically, and makes such poor choices, it’s hard to care. 30-year-old Joe is one of those dweeb’s who gets along with his parents because he’s exactly like them; hardly a winning character. Then there’s Gerri, who epitomizes overbearing superiority. Gerri is all judgment without any joy, and does nothing to suggest she actually cares about anyone outside of her own nuclear family. Tom and Gerri put up with Mary, but it seems only for the purpose of being reminded of their own perfection. As she yet again guzzles glass after glass of wine on their couch, they share a few glances of mild pity with one another, then laugh at her when she’s gone.
Admittedly, the film’s uncanny success is contributing to my ire. Apart from the reviews, Another Year has garnered a number of nominations and an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay. It may not be fair to judge a film based on its undeserved success, but I don’t care, because this script has a swagger that suggests Mike Leigh knew all along how clever he was being. It’s a talk-heavy screenplay, with endless conversations about nothing. Not that meaningless dialogue can’t accomplish something, but it certainly doesn’t here. There’s nothing subtle about the interactions between Tom and Gerri and Mary, and if it’s not subtle than I don’t think you can call it subtext. All the more frustrating is the feeling I get that a lover of Another Year would suggest I’m being too cynical, that I’m disregarding a really sweet and simple portrayal of true love. Except that I’m not a cynic. If anything my reactions to films can be overly sentimental. Though there’s an emotional element at play here, the issues are technical and abundant.
I really could go on and on. It’s a terrible film, and for the first time since starting this blog I truly can’t explain where the disconnect between this opinion and all the others is. The general consensus seems to be that Mike Leigh has subtly crafted a film full of the complex stuff of life: death and loneliness and shared experiences, but who can honestly say that Another Year presented them with themes they hadn’t yet considered on their own? I’m 27-years-old, and there’s nothing presented in this meaningless, meandering story that felt in any way revelatory. Instead it’s all just reiteration without a clear message. Sure, Another Year documents well the lives of its characters. The moments it chooses to center on might even collude to form a reasonable cross-section of these people. But dammit, that’s not enough! I want to have an experience that makes me think and gets my blood pumping, and there’s none of that here. No, here there are only caricatures of love and despair. Here there is just a weak film without an ending. While for some people the presentation of individuals may be stirring, these individuals and this presentation are purely exasperating.