British writer-director Mike Leigh is absolutely one of the most impressive filmmakers alive today. His method of working is unparalleled in its ability to create believable, fully realized characters and utterly realistic situations. What he does can be expressed quite simply, but is undoubtedly very difficult: he takes his time. He rehearses for months without a script, creating the characters and their situations with the actors through improvisations and other exercises and writing the script based on these insights. The result is that we see real people, whose lives begin before the film and go on after it, as opposed to the more utilitarian and one-dimensional characters usually seen in films.
This method had served Leigh and his actors (many of whom have been nominated for and won huge, prestigious awards as a result of their collaborations with him) extremely well over the years, in films like Vera Drake (2004), Secrets and Lies (1996) and Naked (1993), to name just a few. Now, with his latest film, Garden Sheds Leigh Another Year, Leigh trains his incisive gifts on the desperate loneliness and terror of mortality that can come with incipient old age.
This is not seen, as expected, in the presumptive main characters of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), who seem to be handling their gradual aging with grace, maintaining good relationships with friends and family and occupying their time with work they enjoy; instead, the real central character is Gerri's co-worker and longtime friend Mary (Lesley Manville), who gradually takes over the film precisely because that is what people like Mary do in life. Any conversation, party or gathering of any kind is easily subverted by the Marys of the world into dramatic, self-pitying reconstructions of all that has gone wrong in their lives. These takeovers become more forceful when Mary has had a good deal of alcohol, which, of course, is always.
Though Mary is frustrating, even infuriating at times, to both her friends and the audience, she is still always sympathetic, or at the very least empathetic. We may hope that we are not like Mary ourselves, but we will certainly admit to knowing and perhaps even loving people like her in our lives, as we watch her cling to her faded youth and look for love and fulfillment in all the wrong places. She attempts to start a courtship with Tom and Gerri's son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), and is devastated when she shows up one night for a dinner party to find that Joe has brought home a new girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez). The ensuing scene is filled with almost unbearable tension boiling just beneath the surface, as Mary is openly hostile to Katie without ever going so far as to break the conventions of social etiquette. We have all been at dinners like this one, and the uneasy feeling is perfectly captured.
Prior to this, we see Mary at another party thrown by Tom and Gerri, in which their old friend Ken (a heartbreaking performance by Peter Wight) attempts to reconnect with Mary, who is clearly repulsed by his overweight, semi-alcoholic state, refusing to recognize his truly kindred spirit of loneliness or the ravages that time has wrought upon herself. Ken, like Mary, is a deeply sad character who is all too familiar, and the beauty of this film is that we could likely spend the length of another feature exploring his life in depth. There is also Tom's brother, Ronnie (David Bradley) and his estranged son Carl (Martin Savage), whose relationship could also be deeply explored in another film entirely. This points to the brilliance of Leigh's method, in that even minor characters are so well fleshed out that the only complaint an audience can have is the bittersweet one of wanting even more.
Ultimately, this is how we are left to feel about Tom and Gerri, an old married couple who are never seen bickering or making love; they have long since become completely comfortable with one another, content to avoid both ecstatic highs and dismal lows in favor of a complacent middle. Perhaps this is why they keep old friends like Mary and Ken around, in order to reaffirm their own happiness by comparison to these poor sad-sacks, not likely in any conscious or certainly any malicious way, but because that is simply how one relates to a person like Mary. She is a woman who requires constant forgiveness, not so much because her behavior inflicts harm on others, but because it is the only way to reassure her that she is loved when she so clearly cannot love herself.
Another Year is a film of quiet power and beauty, a troubling look at the battle for happiness, which is a crusade that too often ends in the shambles of self-destructiveness seen in Mary and Ken or the somewhat defeated compromise seen in Tom and Gerri. Mike Leigh is one of the great chroniclers of the human condition, and this is among his best films, which easily ranks it among the best of the year.