Another Year Dir. Mike Leigh

[Thin Man Films; 2010]

Styles: drama
Others: Happy-Go-Lucky

As soon as the credits came up, the woman sitting in front of me stood and said to her husband, “That was torturous.” And she didn’t mean it in a good way. I often take for granted my own motivations for watching films, but why do we watch films, generally? What do we expect of them? As I said, these aren’t questions I’m accustomed to addressing directly. (By way of explanation: I recently watched and loved Into Great Silence, which I recommend to anyone with a penchant for long meditations on light, silence, and stillness.)

Another Year portrays a happy elderly couple and their several satellite intimates and acquaintances, all unhappy in various ways and to varying degrees. In some way, it reminded me of Margot at the Wedding. The primary differences between them are that Noah Baumbach’s film fixates on the grotesque (but is no less human for that) and was not well-received. Mike Leigh’s film has accrued a gang of nominations, awards, and exuberant praise. I haven’t done a proper survey of the critical response, but my intuition is that what makes Another Year artful (and by extension, Margot at the Wedding repellent, melodramatic) is its understated tone, developed through a careful rhythmic balance between performances of contented happiness inflected with the subtle failures of aging, and performances of despair and profound loneliness wretched with the breakdown and abandonment that attend obsolescence.

The film is formally interesting: the seasons frame transformations in interpersonal timbre and dynamics. It deserves its Oscar screenplay nomination. The acting is superb, the direction faultless. So why didn’t I come out of the theater deeply satisfied? It’s probably telling that I love Kids. But it’s not the lack of human flourishing in Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s film that makes it appealing; it’s the youth of its characters and the vitality of their terrible freedom, a poetics of destruction. I’m one of those young people making a lot of noise about nothing bemoaned by Ken (Peter Wight), a man whose life has been whittled down to the idle employment of a job and the self-destructive excesses of booze and comfort food. My suspicion is that the aesthetic refinement of Another Year wasn’t enough to overcome my limited life experience.

Which is how I’ve convinced myself this is a worthwhile, as well as a good, film: it’s revealed the unarticulated presuppositions of my viewing practice as essentially ageist. My taste doesn’t belong to me, as long as it’s rooted in a visual culture of idealized youth rather than in a critical stance in relation to that culture. One of the reasons media are saturated with glorified representations of the young is that we’re terrified of death. Another is that the elderly are unproductive. They’re useless or at least relatively difficult to exchange on the labor market. Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), the happy couple, are happy in part because they remain productive. They both have fulfilling occupations, they have each other, they have their son, they have their garden, they have their nice home, etc. In other words, they would be absolutely privileged but for their age.

The other characters aren’t nearly so lucky. They suffer both structural oppressions (class, gender, race — although this last is unexamined) and biographical disadvantages (divorce, bereavement, abuse). These are all forms of bad luck, which gives me the unsettling feeling that whether I’m flourishing or floundering in the winter years of my life will depend less on conviction of character or strength of will than on contingent happenstance. To what extent are the unhappy characters responsible for their unhappiness? To what extent are Tom and Mary responsible for their happiness? Again, these philosophical problems are underscored by the universal fact of decay. I’m growing now, but soon enough my fruits will be eaten, my leaves will turn, my memory will begin to seep out of my brain and into the rest of my body, like a slow poison.

The final shot is a slow fade of Mary (Lesley Manville) at the dining room table, staring. This is one of the things I expect of film. The harrowed gaze of a nauseating, pitiful woman who has failed to find an answer to the haunting questions, “Why?” and “Why me?”

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