January 29, 2011
As each season comes to pass, so too do the moments belonging to time, giving and taking in a continuous cycle. Such is the constancy of our well established calendar and so too our very understanding of time. And yet, we are distinct from these elements. For us, “another” year signifies the next chapter in accumulative time whereby what comes to pass never wholly leaves; belonging in split division to both time and those it is impressed upon. Mike Leigh’s Another Year (2010) carefully and exquisitely examines the weight and imprint of time upon a small group of individuals. But perhaps its greatest feat of all is that it impresses upon the viewer so strikingly poignant and thoughtful an explication of how time means.
The film opens, confrontingly, in the middle of a session. Shot mostly in close-up or extreme close-up, it is initially unclear if the woman (Imedla Staunton) is visiting social services or a GP. As both the frame and the scene expand, it becomes clear that she has come to see a doctor in the hope that some prescribed sleeping pills might plaster over her problems and assure her with at least one decent night’s sleep. Her GP, the heavily pregnant Tanya, refers her to a counsellor to help find the root of her anxiety and depression after concluding that her insomnia is merely a symptom of a deeper issue. When Tanya asks this woman, “What is the one thing that would improve your life apart from sleep?” The woman’s only response is “A different life.” Indicating already here that what time leaves behind is so permanent that only another life could be free of its piercing effects, so begins Leigh’s examination of the determinism behind the formation of a group of individuals and their now lives.
Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are as absolutely middle class as they come. They live in a comfortable yet not exceptional home and spend considerable time tending to their allotment. Their relationship is strong and loving, built upon the very fabric of the time passed in their lives. Having met in college, been apart and then reunited, they have lived “shared lives” including the raising of a son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), their now existence built of age. As they quite literally reap the benefits of the time they have put in to cultivating their love – aptly mirrored through their tending to an allotment – their friends conversely suffer at the hands of time and its cruel reminder that contentedness is far from instantaneous.
Further demonstrated through the birth of Tanya’s son, Spring brings new life and with it new joy, but only through the passage of “natural time”. Gerri’s work colleague and friend Mary (Lesley Manville) understands better than anyone the results of poor cultivation, having lost her home and partner, now living a temporary existence in a rented property and without companionship. But like the woman in the opening scene, Mary is impatient and plasters over the problems brought by time with temporary relief: drinking and smoking, clumsily asking, “Everyone needs someone to talk to, don’t they?”, Gerri replying in earnest, “Yes, they do.” Mary feels time has been unkind to her and instead of attempting to understand and deal with her past – its memories too painful – she favours a quick fix, unable to accept that the permanence of her past is inescapable.
When Tom and Gerri’s other friend Ken (Peter Wight) comes to London to visit, he too is beginning to feel the weight and force and time. Another character who, like Mary, plasters over his problems with great indulgence; eating, drinking and smoking to excess, Ken’s greatest fear of all is the sprawling time he will be left with if he retires. When asked, “What would you do with your time if you retired?” He wearily answers, “Pub. Eat, drink and be merry.” Having lost someone close to him the expanse of time is merely a reminder of his now loneliness and the thought of being confronted with its scarring effects ad infinitum is too much to bear, and so, Ken breaks down at the very mention of such a reality.
The juxtaposition of Tom and Gerri with Ken and Mary is stark but it operates not to vindicate those who have found a way to share their time and to victimise those who have not. Rather, it is there to illustrate the way in which we are all a product of the effects of our own experience of time, howsoever that time may come to pass. With winter, Leigh brings death and another character, Ronnie (David Bradley), whose loss of lifetime companionship has left him as a shadow without its casting.
In the most “Mike Leigh” of all the scenes in the film, Tom begins to voice some of the misanthropic auteur’s world views, suggesting that bosses are fascist and by discussing the importance of lowering one’s carbon footprint and caring about the imminence of catastrophic climate change. Tom speaks to the issues and to himself when he says, “The older you get the more relevant it seems.” But it’s not just the exponential rate at which capitalism, its greed, exploitation and negative impact upon our environment (physical, social and psychological) are advancing that Leigh is here referring to, it is also the fact that having seen and experienced the accumulative damage of these things affords it with greater weight. To the same end, it is hardly coincidental that the film should be set in London with Northern ties: the psychogeographical palimpsest of the country’s heartbeat city contrasts starkly and effectively with the nation’s grim and neglected townships.
The myriad of conflicting emotions brought out by the cast and Leigh’s craft in this film are at times uplifting and at times depressing. Gerri’s exemplary English resolve that, “We stay cheerful. We don’t let things get us down.” contrasts beautifully with Mary’s constant feeling of being hard done by, “Life’s not always kind, is it?” It’s not so much that cognition versus fatalism here but rather that outlook results from those physical, social and psychological piercings of time passed. Examining the way in which one individual can’t not affect another if their time is shared, and the various ramifications of each person’s actions and attitudes, Another Year is an incredibly thoughtful and masterfully poignant work. Offering an examination rather than an explanation, Leigh has created a world that does in its duration for its audience exactly what its characters do for one another: traverse and effect, piercing with the very permanence of time.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.