Another Year (12A)

Ryan Gilbey finds Mike Leigh pursuing fashionably horticultural themes.

Another Year (12A)
dir: Mike Leigh

Last week brought the release of The Kids Are All Right, a witty drama of family life and horticulture. Now we have Another Year, a witty drama of family life and horticulture. Could it be that Homebase has branched out into film? And, if so, might its next venture be a hoe-dunnit?

Both pictures concern a harmonious family whose resolve is tested by outsiders with partial but legitimate claims on membership. In The Kids Are All Right, it was the biological father of teenagers raised by lesbian mothers. In Another Year, the new film from the British director Mike Leigh, the threat to harmony comes from a long-standing friend who overestimates the tolerance that any family has for a troublemaker not bonded by blood.

This is Leigh's first film in 22 years to be made without his cherished producer, Simon Channing Williams, who died in April 2009. Whether or not that accounts for the sense of loss and mortality that permeates the picture is for no one but Leigh to say. Even his most optimistic work (Life Is Sweet, Happy-Go-Lucky) comes with a side order of melancholia. In the case of Another Year, it's the only dish on the menu. Sample forkfuls of dialogue include: "We all grow old"; "We'll be part of history soon"; "Nothing changes"; "Things change". Not forgetting "It's gonna rain again", delivered with Chekhovian sobriety by Tom (Jim Broadbent) as he stands on his allotment. When he's digging in the soil, the camera observes this ceremonial act in mordant close-up. Earth to earth, asparagus to asparagus . . .

Tom is an engineering geologist; this means that he's working on something that won't be finished until after he's dead. He is married to Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a counsellor. Despite their names, the couple are not so much cat-and-mouse as puddycat-and-puddycat: gentle and cuddly, as well as endlessly patient with two taxing friends. Ken (Peter Wight) is a dishevelled old soak who only stops boozing to make way for another cigarette or a fistful of grub; his T-shirt slogan "More Drinking, Less Thinking" is the uncouth equivalent of gilding the lily. And Mary (Lesley Manville) is a lonely, synthetically chirpy secretary whose affection for Gerri and Tom is laced with pain; their contentment visibly scalds her.

In a film that rates green fingers so highly, and uses Gerri and Tom's organic ethic as a mark of their inherent goodness, Mary's claim that she has neglected her garden can be read as an admission of more than just some unruly shrubbery. Manville plays Mary with a startled, uncomprehending stare that softens only in the presence of Joe (Oliver Maltman), Gerri and Tom's adult son, on whom she has a resilient crush. Her attempts at flirting are inept at best. "Ooh, I like your hat," she tells him. He's wearing a cycling helmet at the time.

The film is carved into four parts, each covering a different season in the space of a single year: it begins with a pregnancy in spring and ends with a death in winter. Circle-of-life stuff. Perhaps the steady darkening of the material (and of Dick Pope's attentive cinematography) as the seasons fall away might seem laboured if the tensions which inform that transformation were not so delicately observed. Not many film-makers can bring to a dinner-table scene the air of military manoeuvres, of ground gained and lost, that characterises the family lunch at which Mary meets Joe's new girlfriend - an agonising case of emotional indigestion to rank alongside the Chinese restaurant scene in Leigh's 1971 debut, Bleak Moments.

In an earlier film, Mary might easily have been a walking punchline, like the buffoonish restaurateur in Life Is Sweet. But the most remarkable achievement of Another Year is the depth of its investment in a character whom most of us would cross the road at a demolition derby to avoid. Manville's performance plays no small part in this, but it is Leigh's governing compassion that shifts the film's emphasis subtly and surprisingly towards Mary. With the magnificent final shot, he reshapes everything we have seen, using only a slow zoom, a judicious drop in sound and a piece of film language that mirrors what lies in store for all of us: the fade to black.