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Saturday, February 26, 2011

FILM RVIEW: Another Year

Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) are an amiable British couple approaching their golden years in a cosy corner of London. Tom's an archaeological engineer and Gerri works at a local clinic as a psychologist. They've enjoyed a decades-long, loving marriage. They're a couple that's bright, articulate, and self-aware. But nobody in their circle comes up to that standard; in fact, they're surrounded by misery and human train-wrecks.
   Chief wreck in this collection is a woman named Mary, a friend of Gerri's. This individual (played crazily by Leslie Manville) appears about 48 but her body is still young. She puts a lot of stock in that. Recently divorced, she hangs around the pubs in an effort to attract new men. She also haunts her friend Gerri's house and increasingly imposes her depressive episodes on the couple.
   Mike Leigh's new work is titled "Another Year," a title that evokes Eric Rohmer and Ingmar Bergman. The style is pure Leigh grit, a quality of unalloyed raw-material that the director is famous for. This time, he really outdoes himself: the film is so unerringly natural, so aware of pain, that it almost brings the illusion of film to a stand-still.
   A succession of characters parade through Gerri and Tom's life, people like Tom's friend Ken (a hilarious Peter Wight) and Tom's brother Ronnie, the latter done superbly by the sepulchral David Bradley. These connections of Tom's are as desperate as Gerri's friend, the unhappy Mary. In all these working-class portraits Leigh has pulled off a supreme act of critical examination.
   You may want to look for the many hommages in the film. The character Mary probably owes her genesis to Blanche Dubois, the doomed socialite-tease of the Tennessee Williams masterpiece. In Another Year, Mary, like Blanche, envies the living and the young; she teases all men except those she's most suited to. Sadly for her, she won't get the attention that Blanche received. Mary is a particularly rich portrait, almost unendurable, as she lurches from one narcissistic scene to another.
    Other tributes are stylistic. There are patches of dialogue here that evoke Harold Pinter's family-based plays, and even Samuel Beckett's Godot, and snatches of theatricality that seem cribbed from the Beckett-Pinter inheritance. Mostly, though, we have a night of documentary realism that smacks of British kitchen-sink drama.
     Another Year is a craft film that almost screams Auteur, as it experiments with filmic conventions. You'll laugh nervously  -- the humor is steady-- but find little breeze in its cloistered scenes. You'll be stunned by moments, especially those with Mary, where Leigh forces things to a halt, obliging us to stop gazing and grazing, and to start peering in horror at our act of peering at characters. This is experimental shooting in the grand tradition of pioneers such as J-L Godard.
     And boy does it work! In the end, the film is heart-stopping. It may operate on you like a day at a sick auntie's, first, trapped in the invalid's room, then, the bus. Viewed in the space of two hours, it will not soon be forgotten.
Rated by Recti: 4 stars

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