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British realism amid the glamour of Cannes

Mike Leigh makes a triumphant return to the festival

Veteran British director Mike Leigh made a triumphant return to the Cannes Film Festival when his latest feature Another Year played in competition yesterday. Leigh's film Secrets & Lies won the Palme d'Or here in 1996, but many were surprised when his 2004 film Vera Drake was turned down by Cannes. Another Year sees Leigh making a decisive Cannes comeback, his warmly received film standing out as the one real event film in competition so far.

The cast features a core of long-standing Leigh players, including Lesley Manville, Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, all of whom joined him at the film's press conference. Sheen and Broadbent play a happily married London couple who, over the course of four seasons, cope with the traumas of their friends and family, including his bereaved brother (David Bradley) and a boozy old friend from their hippie days (Leigh veteran Peter Wight). Vera Drake lead Imelda Staunton returns for a terse cameo at the start, and the film turns out to be one of Leigh's most ambitious films – a narratively low-key but very cogent and moving ensemble piece about family, ageing and self-deception.

Festival-goers are already saying that the festival's Best Actress award could well go to Lesley Manville, whose turn as Mary, the couple's walking car-crash of a friend, is the film's emotional core.

As Leigh put it at the press conference, "The film is about about how we come to terms with life, how we face ourselves and each other. The film doesn't have solutions; it raises thoughts to go away with – about how we enjoy and celebrate life as we get older, but also how to deal with its exigencies."

Leigh took exception to a journalist's question about whether he was being mean to his characters by showing some as happy, while others were massively sad. "Why mean? (Mary's) life is a disaster, but I want to know why you think I'm mean to her. If you think we're giving you a mean experience in showing it, this is the kind of cinema that shows you life as it is."

Asked whether he could make films about people with no problems at all, he replied, "When I discover those people, I'll make a film about them. Till then, I'll continue under the naive assumption that people have problems. Problem-free people don't actually exist – and everybody is interesting."

Leigh is a long-term chronicler of changes in UK society and culture. Given that Britain's last Conservative regime perversely proved a stimulating period for socially conscious UK film-makers, I asked him whether he felt that the new Tory regime would be similarly galvanising for British film.

"That's a very Anglocentric question! If there's any correlation between the anger we feel as a result of what's happened in the last few days and the anger that is a necessary ingredient for an artist, then I dare say that that will add fuel to the fire. For me, it's all about looking at life, people and society. What's happened as a result of the general election we can look at and feel and care about from our own political points of view."

Leigh added, "I'm very positive about the cinema of the future. There are still dinosaur notions that the only valid movies are cynical commercial heavyweight operations, but the kind of cinema that is growing is looking at the real."

But Leigh's famous prickly side was on show replying to a questioner who thought that Another Year covered three, not four seasons: "With all due respect, you weren't paying attention."