Thanks to his unique method of developing and shooting films, Mike Leigh’s characters are almost never less than fascinating, and even when his movies don’t really go anywhere, they’re generally very rewarding experiences. Leigh’s latest, Another Year, is even more casual than most of his work, and at its best it feels like spending time with some comfortable old friends. The shapelessness gets a little tiresome after a while, though, and it’s not helped by Lesley Manville’s increasingly shrill performance, a rarity in a movie by a director who normally prizes low-key realism.
Around Manville, however, are the calm, warm presences of Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as settled old married couple Tom and Gerri. Leigh works for months with actors to create characters through improvisation before shooting his films, and thus there’s a real inner life to the people we see on-screen, even when they’re not doing much besides puttering around the house. That’s actually mostly what Tom and Gerri do as we follow them through a year in their late middle age. They’re content in their jobs (he’s a geologist; she’s a therapist) and happy in their marriage, and they do their best to provide support for their friends and family, not all of whom have their lives nearly as well in order.
Chief among those is Gerri’s co-worker Mary (Manville), a neurotic mess who seems to spend every visit at Tom and Gerri’s house getting fall-down drunk and embarrassing herself. While there’s a definite melancholy to Manville’s performance as a woman who can’t admit that life has passed her by, the louder and more desperate Mary becomes (she has a particularly pathetic crush on Tom and Gerri’s adult son), the more broadly Manville plays her, so that by the end she’s less a sympathetic human being than a grating caricature. The episodic film features segments with more impact (including the aftermath of the death of Tom’s sister-in-law), and Broadbent and Sheen carry it through the rough patches. But Manville’s overbearing presence keeps Another Year from achieving the profound emotional richness of Leigh’s best work.