When it comes to the British writer-director Mike Leigh, my likes and dislikes may strike some as perverse: His most popular films tend to leave me cold. Secrets & Lies (1996) was a Leigh crowd-pleaser, but I found it to be an irritatingly sitcomish, bloke-ified Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The much-lauded Naked (1993), to me, made nihilism as heavy as an anvil, and though I enjoyed Sally Hawkins’ cockeyed-optimist performance in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), by the time the driving instructor who was obviously a head case was revealed to be a head case, I felt bludgeoned and annoyed. I tend to prefer Leigh’s quieter films, like the wily, touching Career Girls (1997). So when I say that I loved Another Year, consider yourself warned: The film has precious little in the way of didactic working-class nobility or cheap gags aimed at the peanut gallery.
What it does have is an overwhelming bittersweet melancholy at the passing of life from middle age into?well, you could call it late middle age. But then you’d be falling into the self-deceptive trap shared by several of the film’s characters, who will do anything to avoid the realization that the word for the condition they’re heading toward is?old.
This time, Leigh barely bothers with the pretense of a story. He simply splits the movie into four seasonal chapters over the course of a year, freeing it from the clank of narrative. It’s touching to see Ruth Sheen, so lovely in Leigh’s 1988 High Hopes, now with graying hair and softened features but with her rabbity grin as beatific as ever. She’s teamed with that marvelous rascal Jim Broadbent. They play a vaguely bohemian couple who’ve held on to that fragile thing — happiness — as the friends and relatives who cluster around them make far less successful stabs at it.
And what a moving collection of troubled, romantic, world-weary, stubbornly deluded souls they are! The characters, between big gulps of wine, specialize in that scalding English thing, ”taking the piss” out of each other, but there’s no mockery in Leigh’s view, only sympathy and grace. Amid a collection of lived-in performances, one actor achieves greatness: Lesley Manville (see below), who plays the couple’s most regular, and fragile, Saturday dinner companion, a chatterbox of a secretary who has been coyly girlish, and sozzled, for so long that she has no idea that the loneliness she’s seeking to escape is of her own devising. The last shot of the movie is just her face, staring, as everyone else babbles away at the dinner table, and it’s one of the most haunting, volumes-speaking final shots in the history of cinema. A