It was once said of Ralph Waldo Emerson that he was the 'Sage of ordinary days.' I was reminded of this while watching English director Mike Leigh's new film, Another Year, which is an exploration of the lives of a small group of friends over the course of 12 months. Here is the cinematic trailer.
Leigh's films have a total absence of fanfare or cinematic slight-of-hand, but still achieve a grandeur. That grandeur however, is not so much up on the screen, it's a realization in the mind and heart of the viewer, as Leigh's characters, always allowed room to flourish beyond mere scripting, show us not just who they are but who we are.
American screenwriting teacher Robert McKee, writes of the same principle and effect, in his book, Story, p.123.
'A great work is a living metaphor that says, 'Life is like this.' The classics, down through the ages, give us not solutions but lucidity, not answers but poetic candor; they make inescapably clear the problems all generations must solve to be human.'
'Another Year' is about a small circle of friends and family around the characters of Tom and Gerri, a couple close to retirement age whose main passion is their garden. Their house is a hub for the wheel of core characters around them. During the course of the film in fact their friend, Mary, becomes the key character and emotional talisman. Mary, a lonely middle-aged woman is consumed by that loneliness, to the point of desperation. That desperation, exacerbated by heavy drinking, drives people further away from her, spiraling her deeper into loneliness. Actress Lesley Manville plays her with empathy and ragged depth, managing to show from the inside out a character we all know, but without going into stereotype. It's a characteristic of Leigh's films that he elicits strong performances from actresses, playing characters lost in familiar surroundings, being both of their domestic world and alienated from it. Mary, who is aching for human warmth and affection, attracts only an older man, Ken, who is further along the road to emotional oblivion than she is. Their scenes together, and her total rejection of him and his cloying advances, crackle and singe. Perhaps she recognizes herself in him, a view of her endpoint so shocking she can't be anywhere near him. Perhaps her conscious self doesn't or refuses to recognize their similarities, but some part of her does, and that horrifies her.
There's no real moment of redemption for Mary, as Mike Leigh isn't interested in the shallow and deceptive promise of big victory, but she glimpses a corner to turn by her unexpected connection with another man, Ronnie, whose wife has just died. Their non-conversations, almost wordless, stand tall by the fact they don't attempt to push each other away, but allow the other to exist close to their space. People seared by grief showing their humanness by what they don't do, by not pushing each other away. It's about as big a victory as this film promises. It is also riveting cinema, as close to McKee's 'lucidity...and... poetic candor' as you're likely to see on film this year.
Leigh's films, which in a strange way speak of what 'reality TV' could have been if not dumbed down to moronic level, show us ordinary lives, people facing trauma we have faced, trauma we will face. It is cinema as mirror, honest, often raw, compelling in its sharpness of detail and nuance. His stories make a mockery of stereotypical Hollywood film structure, with its focus on setting the character a goal/problem to solve, then putting antagonists and obstacles in their way until they triumph in a moment of glittering glory. His characters aren't heroes, nor even anti-heroes, but they are heroic, in a meat-and-potatoes way. In the way they wake up in the morning and just go on. Sometimes that's all we have.
It's difficult to categorize Mike Leigh's best films as masterpieces, because the term almost forces you to think of epic sweep of scope of ideas and physical boundaries. This film, and indeed Leigh's other great movie 'Secrets and Lies' are too smart for such things. They look to show the world in a postage stamp, almost a pinprick. Almost everything of any meaning explored in a couple of houses, a single street. This film, to revisit McKee's quote does not give me answers, but it does ask enormous questions, and sometimes, like Mary who gets up in the morning and just goes on, that's all we have.