Like most Mike Leigh films, “Another Year” has what you might call a low concept. It’s a film whose structure is predicated merely on cycling through the seasons. It’s not apparently about anything. That is, unless life — daily, weekly, monthly, yearly — counts as anything. For writer-director-acting-ensemble-coordinator Leigh, it does. It’s the only thing.
Leigh reportedly works by gathering a cast, probing characters through collective improvisation, shaping their mutual discoveries into a script, and directing a film from that. This time the result revolves around an ostensibly happy married couple of late middle age, and several of the ostensibly unhappy people they know. Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geological engineer, and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a mental health worker, enjoy a warm and comfortable middle-class life together, with a cozy house in the London suburbs, a well-tended patch of community vegetable garden, and occasional agreeable visits from their grown son Joe (Oliver Maltman). Yes, Tom and Gerri know how their names sound together; they’re good sports about having heard the all the jokes before. They’re good sports about everything, really.
That’s a mixed blessing for Mary (Lesley Manville), a secretary who works with Gerri and also happens to be a clingy, lonely, self-loathing drunk. Mary oozes so much accumulated disappointment and desperation that her very presence is an automatic imposition; the sympathetic Tom and Gerri take her in, but it’s not really doing anyone any favors. When not fending off the advances of her male counterpart, Tom’s boorish and similarly miserable buddy Ken (Peter Wight), Mary stays busy by making her own passes at Joe, who awkwardly humors her — as does Joe’s girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez), at her own peril. Mary even imposes herself on Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley), whose wife has just died. In fact, Mary is so forcefully disruptive that the whole movie’s orbit shifts; as if against its own will, it starts revolving around her.
And it seems like a weird, uncomfortable miracle that Leigh, in a work of calculated diminutiveness, has enabled such magnitude: Mary might well be one of the neediest, least self-aware characters ever to grace — or, well, grate — a movie screen. The irony is that Manville herself is so generous and acutely conscious: She gives her ensemble-mates so much to work with, and knows exactly what she’s doing.
The brave genius of “Another Year” is Leigh’s understanding that concept-weaned moviegoers in particular might not know how to handle such a vivid display of naked self-pity. That’s where the intriguing ambiguity comes in. Do we become infuriated by this pathetic interloper, or by the smugly entitled happy friends who seem to enable and condescend to her? And do we ever get beyond that knee-jerk reaction, closer to an acceptance of the full range of humanness?
Without ever diagnosing or prescribing, “Another Year” wonders about the difference between being well adjusted and being complacent. It is about something after all: us.