Unmarried misery

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Another Year (M). Director: Mike Leigh. Starring: Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Peter Wright. Running time: 129 minutes

In December, Australians witnessed one of the most truthful 'feel bad' relationship dramas of recent memory. Blue Valentine seemed tailor made to make married people miserable. Stunning performances from Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling first evoked the attraction and intimacy that make love sweet, then took to extremes the kinds of personality foibles and communicatory rifts that can cause relationships to sour, then expire, then fester like a hideous weeping sore.

Now it's the singles' turn. Writer-director Mike Leigh's Another Year contains what are surely some of the most pitiable caricatures of later-life singlehood to ever curse a feature film with their sad presence. The film exposes the intensity of these characters' misery as they amble amid a group of variously happier friends through a succession of presumably familiar social routines (in many ways this is, as the title suggests, just 'another year').

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First and foremost, there's Mary (Manville), who, to be fair, in addition to being single, is somewhat of an infuriating ninny. For the most part her neurotic and frequently tipsy babbling is played for comic value, although by the end of the film we know her well enough — and have witnessed enough of her pained, quiet moments — to appreciate that gasping for breath beneath her wine-swilling garrulousness are deeply felt insecurities and a desperate desire to be loved.

Mary's misery is reflected and amplified in Ken (Wright); overweight and unkempt, and who moves about amid a clatter of beer cans and a cloud of chip crumbs. We spend just enough time with Ken to see the tortured and lonely soul that dwells within his sartorially-challenged exterior, so that our sympathy remains with him even when he begins sleazing clumsily and drunkenly onto Mary at a barbecue. (Yes, even Mary, the film's second-most pathetic character, doesn't want a bar of Ken.)

Mary and Ken's misery is exacerbated by the well-intended condescension of Tom and Gerri (Broadbent and Sheen), a smug married couple whose contentedness with each other is epitomised by well-practiced, affectionate banter that's often as quick and humourous as are their cartoonish phonetic namesakes. Tom and Gerri welcome their single friends into their home with the kind of pitying fondness with which one might offer palliative care to an ailing stray dog.

They provide a listening ear, often with barely concealed bemusement, but never what's really needed: sound advice and some good old-fashioned practical assistance. When Mary intimates to Gerri that she might find Ken attractive if he looked after himself a bit better, the best Gerri can offer is to inform her that Ken used to be good looking, and insist feebly that he 'has a good heart'.

No appeal to Mary's sense of empathy, that she and Ken are fellow travellers on the same unhappy road. No quiet word to Ken that, 'Hey, if you tidy yourself up a bit and learn to eat with your mouth closed, you might be in with a shot.' The characters' apparent unwillingness or inability to help each other or themselves makes them seem both infuriatingly self-obsessed but also relatably human.

Don't get me wrong: this is a fine film, just not a cheery one. The performances are superb, and although the 'year in the life' structure invites tedium and is unsatisfying in its lack of closure, the alternately hilarious and heartbreaking dialogue and finely observed characters make Another Year compelling viewing. And like Blue Valentine, if it's to be taken as a cautionary tale to those who are unhappy with their lot, hopefully it inspires determination to change, rather than despair. 



Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue magazines, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail

Topic tags: Another Year, Mike Leigh, Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen



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Existing comments

Tim,I'm glad you included,"Don't get me wrong: this is a fine film, just not a cheery one." and,"...hopefully it inspires determination to change, rather than despair."
I was just about to reach for the razor blades :-)

DAVID HICKS | 20 January 2011  

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