In romantic literature, one periodically runs across a particular character who finds complete emotional and spiritual harmony with the universe. Author Josephine Hart puts it best at the beginning of her novel Damage: "Those who are lucky enough to find it ease like water over a stone, onto its fluid contours, and are home." But what of the others -- those who never even come close to finding this sort of connectedness? Those who are so out of alignment with their surroundings that every simple action they take causes a domino-like series of catastrophes?
Mike Leigh's sad-eyed drama Another Year is about a character like that. Lesley Manville stars as Mary, a single clerical worker in her early fifties whose rapid-fire, helter-skelter speech patterns and jerky physical movements suggest an ingrained awkwardness. Every word from Mary seems a little too forced, every gesture a bit too desperate. On some fundamental level, she is able to survive from day to day, but only marginally -- and inside, she's gradually being torn to shreds by her permanent state of isolation. On a romantic level, she seems born to disprove the old adage "there's someone for everyone."
In her off hours, Mary repeatedly visits a kindly middle-aged couple, counselor Gerri (Ruth Sheen) and her husband, Tom (Jim Broadbent). The pair extends the hand of friendship to Mary, but their evidently perfect, issue-free marriage of three decades has the adverse effect of doubling her insecurity. When she makes the mistake of growing infatuated with the couple's 30-year-old son, Joe (Oliver Maltman) -- who is both more together and much more intelligent and perceptive than she is -- we realize that she's way out of her league and may be headed for heartbreak.
Leigh divides this material into four titled installments, which unfold over each season during the course of a year. The passages of the film that deal with Mary rank with some of the most finely felt and emotionally articulate work that Leigh has ever done. There is real magic in the writer-director's ability to begin with this hopeless character, then set up and introduce narrative divertissements for Mary -- culminating with an almost unfathomably desperate attempt to reach out to a pathetic older man. In projecting a combination of heartbreak, confusion, and desperation, Manville renders her character both complex and genuinely terrifying -- all the more so because, although we can see how "off" her behavior is, we couldn't even begin to articulate a means for her self-improvement. Manville also plays Mary as one without enough subtlety or self-awareness to even attempt to mask her feelings, and as a result, the actress turns emotional nakedness into pure, unfettered devastation before our eyes. The story may be achingly sad, but it never fails to compel -- and demonstrates great courage in refusing to end on a tidier and more optimistic note; the conclusion needs to be messy and unresolved for us to catch all of the dead-end tragedy at the heart of this story.
If Another Year sinks below perfection and disappoints, it does so only in terms of its overall dramatic architecture. Whereas Leigh's prior effort, Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), seemed beautifully conceived and structured (without extraneous sequences), Year slips by refusing to confine its focus to Mary's tale. It opens with a character played by the magnificent Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), who gives a dynamite performance that tops even Manville's, and then she inexplicably disappears from the proceedings. We feel cheated, and we want to know more about her. Similarly, Leigh's final sequence ("Winter") temporarily breaks from the preceding narrative, pulling us away from Mary and into a funeral subplot with only the most tangential connection to the main character. This entire section should be excised; it introduces needless story developments, drains the picture of momentum, and feels tacked-on, superfluous -- even errant. These structural weaknesses give one the impression that this drama would have benefited slightly from at least one more go-round at Leigh's editing table.
Fortunately, though, such lapses are not fatal. Both Manville's own performance and the very fluid interplay between Manville, Broadbent, and Sheen are superb enough to merit a serious recommendation.