A Touching Tale of Tumbles
By Andre Yilin Wang '14, Contributing Writer
Almost unavoidable is the comparison between “Another Year” and “The King’s Speech,” two British productions hitting U.S. market at around the same time (as hinted by the two posters as I entered Amherst Cinema). While the latter took the awards season by storm, the former seems more removed from the spotlight.

Yet blessed with keen observation and sobering empathy, “Another Year” dwarfs its peer with the magic of converting the mundane into an extraordinary portrayal of loss and insecurity that comes with age and — at its boldest — the pondering of happiness. Supported by a stand-out cast and succinct cinematography, this largely dialogic 129-minute story encompasses hopes, anxiety, death and isolation within its almost cliché but grounded four-part structure.

We have Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a geologist and a counselor joined by their love for horticulture and each other. They also have an unmarried son Joe (Oliver Maltman), a lawyer in his early thirties who seems less than heartened to consider his personal life. The film follows their lives in a year in which they deal with the problems their less content friends face.

“Another Year” is at heart a tale of aging, an inspection of the pangs of decline. Yet instead of setting all characters to doom, screenwriter and director Mike Leigh establishes a happy couple around which the vicissitudes of their friends orbit. This contrast balances the tone of the story but adds a hint of moral lesson which at times feels more educational than enriching. Neither framing the story within four seasons nor matching emotions with color themes is novel cinematic practice, but Leigh put both to their fittest sense in “Another Year,” brilliantly if not subtly saturating the narrative. The Academy Award-nominated screenplay tidily allocates each season one character and depicts his or her relationship with the couple by a masterful brew of everyday dialogue and down-to-earth wit. Alfred Hitchcock, in his cinematographic prowess, once said, “When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” Yet Mike Leigh defies such direction by layering conversations over conversations, a dangerous move that could easily nudge the film into rambling platitude. What saves it from a boring account is Leigh’s shrewd writing which tickles our memory of routines through gripping details and leads the film to the complete opposite: an engrossing rendition of the most common.

Contrary to her character’s role in the film, Leslie Manville dominates the cast by delivering a stunning performance as Mary, a middle-aged woman who desperately struggles to mend her failed life. Through twitching mouth, trembling lips, frowning eyebrows, squinting eyes and cadenced words, Manville builds up a character whose juvenility and fragility at first merely embarrass and entertain but evolve and catalyze her despair as the film progresses. Despite having witnessed her self-wreckage, we can’t help but pitying this woman when she knocks on the door of Tom and Gerri’s only to find an unfamiliar stare. Her helplessness and dependence haunt us even more for her attempt to hold on to her broken dignity in the direst quagmire. Manville’s controlled explosion of shame and loss hit their bitterest note in the final shot: still and pensive, she is left at the center of the frame as the camera pulls away, her pain and guilt amplified by the isolation she faces. Rarely in contemporary cinema has one moment been more organic and naked.

In “Another Year,” Leigh composes a four-movement symphony in which timber, rhythm and melody work together effortlessly to embody the richness of life. Without any apparent mass appeal, it is a typical anti-commercial film. Undoubtedly, “Another Year” will not easily attract to the young audience; it in no way intends so. Yet its examination of weariness, loneliness, restlessness, joy and other emotional turmoil in the barest, most alive sense may still resound. Furthermore, once we adapt to the slow, quiet flow, it is hard to stop its lyricism and palpable realism from echoing within. Beautifully made, “Another Year” transforms a most ordinary year into a profound, touching experience that roots from but transcends life — a feat we call art.

Issue 19, Submitted 2011-03-23 01:27:53