Another Year, Cannes Film Festival

A superior study in self-loathing
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The Independent Culture

Mike Leigh's latest film is an acutely well-observed study of needy and unhappy people desperately trying to make sense of their lives.

This is not exactly uplifting viewing. Nor is the director breaking new ground. Some critics of Leigh are bound to accuse him of patronising his characters and of rehearsing themes that he has tackled in countless other films from Abigail's Party to Secrets and Lies (unhappy families, loneliness, unfulfilled desire, social embarrassment and class and regional tension.) However, he is a supreme actors' director with an uncanny ability to wring drama out of domestic details that other film-makers would treat in the most throwaway fashion. A cup of tea in a kitchen, a late arrival at a barbecue, a fraught drive to a railway station – these are the pivotal incidents that Another Year turns around.

The setting is largely the suburban London home of medical counsellor Gerri (Ruth Sheen) and her geologist husband Tom (Jim Broadbent.) They are a stable and contented couple on the cusp of old age. The struggles of the other characters are seen from their patient and kindly perspective.

The tone of the film is set right at the outset when we see a huge close-up of Imelda Staunton's face. Staunton's cameo is as a wretchedly unhappy woman who can't unravel the secret of her own misery. Leigh regular Lesley Manville plays Mary, Gerri's work colleague, in deceptive fashion. Only slowly do we begin to understand the character's misery. She is living in a poky rented flat on her own, without a boyfriend or a husband, drinking to keep her demons at bay.

Equally dysfunctional is Ken (Peter Wight), Tom's friend from Hull. He is overweight, alcoholic, consumed with self-loathing.

Leigh's skill is to portray these characters in a way that highlights their humour and humanity as well as their desperation. They are so wrapped up in their own lives that they have lost the ability to empathise with or understand others.

Another Year is split, Rohmer-style, into seasons. Not a huge amount happens. Mary buys a car that she thinks will bring her the freedom she craves. Inevitably, it keeps on breaking down, and leaves her even more sorrowful and self-pitying than before. There is a funeral – a quietly devastating scene that ranks with Leigh's most memorable set pieces.

The most upbeat strand of the film concerns Joe (Oliver Maltman), Gerri and Tom's son, who begins a relationship with the happy-go-lucky Katie (Karina Fernandez.) In a film dealing so heavily in disappointment and bereavement, they at least find love and companionship.

Suburban settings like these are often used for sitcoms. At moments, Gerri and Tom could almost be mistaken for older versions of Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal in The Good Life. Of course, such cosy comedy is anathema to Leigh, who probes far more deeply and uncomfortably into his characters' lives than a TV sitcom ever would.

Gerri and Tom can seem just a little bit too well-adjusted and even complacent. How, you wonder, have they avoided all the angst that dogs the other characters here? However, they are the fixed points in a world that otherwise seems very cruel and arbitrary indeed.