Went to the Curzon to catch the first showing of Mike Leigh’s Another Year on Friday. It has been garlanded with so many fulsomely positive notices the funny-looking illustration of a tree on the poster is now groaning under the weight of such critical leaves. I am not about to go against the grain. I do actually believe that Mike Leigh is one of our greatest exponents of national cinema. Whether his films are any more trustworthy as a reflection of real life in this country than those romantic portrayals of France that I am such a sucker for, I have no idea. They certainly have a greater sense of realism than the work of Richard Curtis, Guy Ritchie or Spooks. Not that realism is essential for drama. I do not live in Greater Manchester but I’m fairly sure Coronation Street is no more real than the East End of EastEnders – this is not a problem. But Leigh’s ambitions are towards real life, just as Ken Loach’s are, and Andrea Arnold’s, and Peter Mullan’s. It is not a prerequisite of national cinema to simply hold a mirror up. Trainspotting bordered on fantasia, but it told universal truths. Atonement and Pride & Prejudice are period pieces, and by their nature at a remove from universal experience of British or English life, and yet both have their place in the canon. But Mike Leigh sits apart from every filmmaker I’ve mentioned.
His technique, which stopped being the most interesting thing about him years ago, is his own. The immersion of his actors in their characters; the extensive period of improvisation; the creation of a script – credited to Leigh, and Leigh alone – out of that workshopping; the Dogme-like use of real locations, dressed in part by the actors themselves, who by the time of filming actually inhabit their parts; all this goes on under the surface of the final product, but when it clicks into place, it is sublime.
Which is not to say Leigh is infallible. Sometimes his work strays into caricature, such as the yuppie couple played by Lesley Manville and David Bamber in High Hopes (which remains one of my favourites), who are even called Rupert and Laetitia Boothe-Braine, with are bad sitcom names. There’s usually one actor who has seemingly been encouraged to take off the safety catch, and the resulting character’s appearance provides comic relief, albeit an awkward variety, in among all the social-realist subtlety – Timothy Spall’s deluded restaurateur in Life In Sweet, Mark Benton’s sociopathic Goth in Career Girls, Greg Crutwell’s psychotic landlord in Naked.
I accept these sore-thumb characters as part of the warp and weft of the Leigh universe – sometimes a point needs making more loudly or broadly than others, and of course, the fastest way to pathos is often via caricature: Benton was my favourite character in Career Girls, as teeth-grindingly uncomfortable as his ungainly, tongue-tied, shoegazing presence made me. The most audacious thing about Leigh’s last film, 2008’s Happy-Go-Lucky, for me, was not that it was somehow “less miserable” than his usual work (I don’t find his films “miserable”, incidentally, any more than I find the Smiths “miserable”), but that he had empowered what might have been one of his more extreme caricatures to take the lead. I could easily imagine Sally Hawkins’ preternaturally upbeat primary school teacher cropping up as a supporting character in any of his previous films, perhaps to point up the essential tragedy of a more central character, but not here. This was a bold move, and it paid dividends. Frankly, if you find her character irritating in the trailer, you’ll probably find her irritating over 118 minutes. Or captivating and fascinating.
Another Year cleaves more closely to realism than caricature. (By the way, I interviewed Mike Leigh for Radio 4 a couple of years ago, and I aroused his ire by suggesting the yuppies in High Hopes were caricatures. He insisted that they were accurate and realistic.) Certainly, the central pair in Another Year, Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent’s allotment-tending suburbanites Tom and Gerri, who genuinely love each other to pieces and are clearly made for each other, are about as believable a couple as you will see in fiction this year, or any year. All credit to Sheen and Broadbent, Leigh veterans, for building this grand illusion: when they hug, or exchange a glance, or a cross word, or share a joke, it is as if they have been married for 30 years, which they haven’t! Maybe this is a cliche, but their acting is so good it doesn’t look like acting. It’s entirely possible that actors whose acting is more obviously acting will beat Sheen and Broadbent to some acting awards in the coming awards season. If that is the case, they should be flattered.
You could read Another Year as the story of Mary, played by Lesley Manville but given better material to work with than she had as the braying yuppie in High Hopes: an essentially sad but genuinely optimistic and still attractive middle-aged Croydon divorcee whose options for lasting, shared happiness are narrowing as another year passes. Yes, she’s a bit of a comedy drunk, and yes, her desperation and unworldly incompetence are occasionally played for laughs – such as when she parks her new car up on the kerb – but as the story plays out through the four seasons, each one captioned, it is her basic tragedy that is uncovered.
I found myself drawn to the smaller characters: Tom and Gerri’s grown-up son Joe (Oliver Maltman), whose list of demons only stretches as far as being conspicuously single in his thirties; their old pal Ken (Peter Wight, or Brian the security guard in Naked, to white, “The end of the world is nigh, Bri”), also single but heading for a heart attack rather than a long life of loneliness; Ronnie (David Bradley), Tom’s bereaved brother, a man of few words but a multitude of home truths; Carl (Martin Savage), Ronnie’s psychotic son, who threatens to steal all three scenes he’s in with a pent-up dark energy that seems to come from another film, or at least, an earlier film; even Janet (Imelda Staunton), a depressed patient of Gerri’s whose story stretches only to one scene at the very beginning but sets a misleadingly grim tone – all expertly played, all vital to the melting pot. Without Sheen and Broadbent, whose characters are surely a heartfelt gift from Leigh to two of his most trusted regulars for all their years’ service, we might be eavesdropping on a gallery of rogues and misfits. Tom and Gerri root the film. They centre it. They balance it.
I don’t think we should ever underestimate Mike Leigh’s skill in keeping this balancing act up. I was fortunate enough also to meet and interview the charming Simon Channing Williams, long-service-medal producer of Leigh’s work since The Short & Curlies in 1987, who sadly died last year, and he said that it was always a struggle to get funding for his films, no matter how celebrated, decorated or even commercially successful they became. Even after the Oscar-nominated Vera Drake, he said they had to start again from scratch. (It is significant that much of the funding for Leigh’s films comes from European partners.) For all the occasional hints at commercial viability, his films are not easy to watch. They don’t have neat endings, or even neat middles. This one has a beginning that almost suggests a different film. Even Happy-Go-Lucky, for all its happy-go-luckiness, was a strange film to sit through – as indeed was Nuts In May, which runs for the most part on a gentle, almost Ealing-like comic energy, but explodes, just as Abigail’s Party did, from a comedy of manners and social aspiration into something altogether more Gothic. Leigh doesn’t make it easy for new customers. He opens the back door of somebody you’ve never met and ushers you inside with a shush, saying, “Come and have a look at these people’s lives. It might be fun. It might be horrible. But it’s what happens inside other people’s houses, and it will be painful because you know it also happens inside yours.”
Another Year is exquisite. Some passages are painful. There is very little in the way of score. Most scenes are played out in what looks like real time, in full view, which includes the awkward pauses most films have no time for. When Manville’s soak, who is at a low ebb, finds herself in social isolation with the brother of her best friend’s husband, himself displaced from his home, and they share a cigarette in the conservatory of Tom and Gerri, who are at the allotment, it’s heavy going, but it’s not the sort of exchange you expect to see in British cinema. You won’t see it in Spooks or Coronation Street. You might see it in Ken Loach, or Andrea Arnold, or Peter Mullan, but there it is more likely to be loaded with some kind of threat or meaning or narrative significance. In Mike Leigh it’s there to show you that you have not been watching two actors for the last couple of hours, but two people. So rounded and warm-blooded are they, you imagine that they have been dropped into a scene together to see what happens. What happens might not seen significant. It might not “move the story on,” as writers are constantly being told a scene must do, but it privileges us to see it.
Having recently seen, and enjoyed, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright (see: blogs passim), a keenly written story of ordinary lives that just happen to play out in sunny California, the difference between it and Another Year is marked. The similarity is that both feature the growing of organic produce. More people will enjoy The Kids Are All Right – it’s kind of designed to please, no matter how subtle much of the dialogue and acting undoubtedly are in places – but I prefer Another Year. As an honest depiction of contemporary London life, for me it’s up there with Life Is Sweet and High Hopes, and shares cast members with both.
It’s life. And life isn’t always sweet.