Ann Hornaday reviews 'Another Year,' a telling portrait of wedded bliss

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 7:45 PM

In a movie season of unhappy marriages, leave it to British director Mike Leigh - the gritty social realist and notorious contrarian - to arrive with a finely observed portrait of a happy one.

If "Rabbit Hole" and "Blue Valentine" have each exquisitely traced the contours of relationships on the ropes, Leigh's "Another Year" presents viewers with a rock-solid, decades-old marriage, secure in its moorings and smug in its harbor.

Oops, did I say smug? Well, let's let it stand. Because, seen from a different angle, the ritualized joys and habitual satisfactions of settled attachment can seem just a tad judgmental, just a bit patronizing to the less fortunate looking in. Only Leigh could find so much pathos in ripe, rounded happiness: As a double portrait of loneliness and intimacy, "Another Year" allows viewers to occupy both psychic spaces, nesting into the warm comforts of a long-lived-in home and then, on a dime, seeing it through the searching eyes of the marginalized figures that, over the course of 11 films, Leigh has so often championed.

The outsider in this case is Mary (Lesley Manville), who, as the fragile, fatally self-deceiving heroine of "Another Year," resembles a British-realist Blanche DuBois, a walking unmade bed of frazzled late middle age and frayed attempts at staying young. As "Another Year" begins, Mary goes for dinner at the home of her friends Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), whose strong marriage, happy family and ruddy good health represent both a refuge and a rebuke to Mary's own life. Despite her cheerful insistence that she's in a "really good place in my life," after several drinks it becomes clear that she's miserable, resentful and chronically, confoundingly, unfairly alone.

Mary's a mess. But anyone who's been the third wheel amidst happy coupledom - or just suffered random bouts of bum luck - will surely gravitate toward a character who, even at her unraveling worst, commands the audience's compassion. Thanks to Manville's bravura rendition of a woman on the verge - of a breakdown or breakthrough, we're not always sure - Mary emerges as a volatile, unpredictable, utterly compelling guide through our competing emotions of sympathy and exasperation.

As the title suggests, "Another Year" follows Tom, Gerri and Mary through the course of 12 months, here separated into four chapters denoted by seasons. Friends and relations drift in and out of Tom and Gerri's modestly prosperous home: their 30-year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman), the couple's longtime friend Ken (Peter Wight), Tom's slightly estranged brother Ronnie (David Bradley). The one constant is Mary, who in her fluttery, birdlike way - and through the distorting lens of a perpetually full wine glass - shows a weakness for disastrously misreading casual kindness and winking jokes. As "Another Year" inexorably progresses, the limits of Tom and Gerri's friendship begin to strain. Happy families are all alike - tight little islands of fiercely defended contentment, meeting the incursions of smokers and drinkers and sad single friends with measured bonhomie and a conspiracy of meaningful glances ("poor thing").

But as clearly as Leigh sees Tom and Gerri through Mary's eyes, he just as frankly admires the life they've made for themselves through rectitude and hard work (both of them work in excavation, Tom as a geologist, Gerri as a social worker). If they're so encased in good fortune that they occasionally can't see the suffering around them ("Tasty!" Joe cluelessly says when one of his Indian clients says she works at a restaurant), they don't completely lack for compassion.

As Leigh did with 2008's "Happy-Go-Lucky," he and cinematographer Dick Pope have chosen a lush palette and expansive widescreen canvas to draw the audience into Tom and Gerri's lambent world, made all the more seductive by Gary Yershon's lyrical chamber score. And, as in the earlier film, the filmmaker ratchets up the tension as viewers wonder whether the inevitable piano will fall on someone's head.

In "Happy-Go-Lucky," Leigh made the audacious decision not to punish the film's perennially cheerful heroine. This time, he reverts closer to form (this is, after all, a man who launched his career with a movie called "Bleak Moments"). Having collaborated with his cast so effectively in creating characters we instinctively care about, Leigh finally proves too rigorous to reward our emotional investment with an unearned happy ending.

Seen another way - from the inside out, as it were - "Another Year" simply continues the fascinating inquiry Leigh began with "Happy-Go-Lucky," in which he contemplated the tiny acts of will that it takes to bend the arc of life toward bliss rather than despair. ("It's up to you," Gerri keeps telling her clients.)

"Another Year" is a joy, albeit one suffused with melancholy - a visually rich, musical, unmannered slice of life that magnifies experience rather than miniaturizing it. Like the seasons themselves, it blooms and fades, obeying the laws of a universe that has less to do with conventional cinema than nature itself.

Another Year rrr (129 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for objectionable language.

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