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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


  Another Year


Director Mike Leigh (2010)

You get to a certain age and the mirror in the bathroom tends to lurch out at you. Suddenly it’s too close, too bright for comfort. An opening shot in Mike Leigh’s Another Year pores over Imelda Staunton’s pores in a similarly rude way.

Leigh’s plays and films have always held a big, distorting shaving mirror up to our vain humanity, and this one comes with a special warning to those aged between 40 and 60. These are difficult years, it seems, lodged uncertainly between the vigorous forward march of youth and the reflective relaxation of old age. Just what are you supposed to do?

The couple at the hub of Another Year seem to have found an answer. Tom (Jim Broadbent) is a geologist, passionate about mud and rocks. “That’s it! London clay!” he cheers at one point, looking at a bit of dirt on the end of a stick. Gerri (Ruth Sheen) is a counsellor.

Staunton, in a marvellous cameo, is one of Gerri’s reluctant clients. Gerri attempts to locate the source of her obvious despair.

“On a scale of one to ten how happy would you say you were?”


“What single thing would most change your life for the better.”

“Being somebody else.”

Woody Allen once said his only regret in life was not being born somebody else, but there’s not much anyone, not even the patient, caring, intelligent, sorted Gerri, can do about that problem, and we see no more of Staunton.

Instead we have Tom’s friend Ken (Peter Wight, who played Nige in Early Doors) and Mary (Lesley Manville, brilliantly teetering on the brink of tears). They aren’t very happy either, working in dead-end jobs and living dead-end lives. But they are trying to make something of it, and, in-between trying, drinking.

Mary buys a car. The small red car of her dreams. It will make her independent, she says, though independent of what we aren’t sure. But the car, like Ken and Mary, is constantly breaking down.

Loneliness is their main problem, probably. Both say they’re happy on their own but they haven’t yet reached the Staunton character’s dark depths where things are so bad you might as well be honest.

Ken fancies Mary but Mary fancies Tom and Gerri’s son Joe who’s found himself a chirpy girlfriend straight out of Mike Leigh central casting. So none of that is going anywhere.

Hope, of sorts, arrives with Tom’s lately widowed brother Ronnie (David Bradley), as miserable a grain of hope as you could imagine.

Mary attempts to comfort him, groping clumsily for the right sort of language in which to do it.

“Do you want a cuddle?”

No answer.

“Do you want a cup of tea?”

Ah, a nice cup of tea. That’s a language everyone understands, and that’s the best stab at optimism, the closest thing to human compassion, you’re going to get.

But what about Tom and Gerri? They’re happy aren’t they? Despite their names they don’t ever fight. But they do have a cartoon quality - Tom’s geological thrills and Gerri’s strangely stilted speech, like she’s distancing herself, trying to hold all that misery at bay.

They’ve created a haven they’ll allow others into – as long as they’ve got an invite. Gerri all but chucks Mary out when she turns up on the doorstep unannounced, looking for a cuddle, perhaps, but not getting one.

When happiness is in such short supply, best keep it to yourselves.

November 15, 2010

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