Mike Leigh has always had a certain unique talent for combining both the horrible and the wonderful, the tragic and the hilarious, into one compact moment of cinema, and thus turning his films into a series of ultra-realistic happenings, as if you yourself are inside each and every moment up on the screen. This nearly seamless blending of the baroque and the sublime has worked to give his films, especially his more recent output such as Secrets & Lies, All Or Nothing, Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky, a certain subtle power that grabs one and pulls them deep inside for two hours or so. Leigh's latest, Another Year, is no different in that aspect. Made up of equal parts tragedy and comedy, mixed well and served cold (matter-of-factly even) this film about a year in the life of one middle class English family, and one particularly troublesome outsider, is Leigh at his most acerbic, and at his post-Kitchen Sink finest.
Perhaps not as devastating as his darkest (Vera Drake, Naked) nor as acerbic as his wittiest (Secrets & Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky), Another Year is nonetheless the English auteur's most secularly humanistic film - even as it manages to show the slow and painful emotional destruction of one of its central characters. The great English Actress, Lesley Manville, a Leigh regular (the director uses a certain stable of recurring actors in his films, including Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen and Imelda Staunton, all seen here) plays Mary, a woman who is slowly falling apart due to insecurity and loneliness. Manville (who incidentally should be up for an Oscar for this stunningly tragic performance) plays a fine line between pathos and the downright pathetic in the role that, though perhaps not the lead (it is an ensemble piece after all), is the emotional crux, for better or for worse, of Leigh's latest. Leigh's final shot, which seems to go on forever in uncomfortable near-silence (though actually only about twenty seconds long) is one of the most heartwrenching final shots this critic has seen in a movie in a good four or five years.
A humanistic triumph that never, like so many other films of its ilk, shoves its agenda in the viewer's collective faces, Leigh's film plays as not a movie so much as some sort of hybrid between cinema and real life. Cinematic pretensions, both good and bad (and yes there are two sides to the idea of pretentiousness in art), are left by the wayside in Leigh's work. The film just is, and that is all it needs to be. [02/12/11]