Sony // 2010 // 130 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // June 7th, 2011
"A masterful look at life, love, and the meaning of friendship."
One of the stereotypes about the English is that they're emotionally restrained, letting even the most violent emotions bubble under the surface rather than allowing even the tiniest bubble to emerge on the surface of their calm. Like most stereotypes, it's probably true some of the time and not at others. However, Mike Leigh makes films as if that stereotype were true. His films offer delicate, humane portraits of individuals in his native Britain. Another Year continues the tradition Leigh laid out in Vera Drake and Secrets and Lies, with a film that once again chronicles the forces that act on a family. The result is a narrative that takes the audience slowly through a year filled with exquisite observations and indomitable humanity.
Tom (Jim Broadbent, Moulin Rouge) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen, Vanity Fair) are a happily married couple. He's a geologist and she's a counselor. Gerri works with Mary (Leslie Manville, Vera Drake), a lonely woman who has designs on the couple's son Joe (Oliver Maltman, Happy-Go-Lucky). Tensions flare when Joe shows up with a new girlfriend, and the film follows these friends and family through a year in their lives.
Several things are remarkable about Another Year. The first is that at its center is a functional, happy couple (Tom and Gerri). It's easy in our cynical age to show dysfunctional couples, and the shelves of our video stores are littered with examples of couple that don't work. They're also, of course, filled with films where the couples work for the wrong reasons, like convenient romcom plots and unlikely character matchups. That Another Year succumbs to neither extreme -- making Tom and Gerri neither dysfunctional nor unrealistic -- -already establishes it as a film with an agenda outside the bounds of most dramatic cinema. Tom and Gerri's relationship, built on years of sharing a life, serves as the center for Another Year and puts the relationships with others in perspective. For instance, their relationship with Joe is a bit strained, and Mary's desire for Joe (which Joe at first appears to reciprocate) can be understood in contrast to the low-key interactions of Tom and Gerri.
The other thing that Another Year gets right is putting great actors in all the roles, especially of the three leads. Mike Leigh is known for building his films around a central idea, allowing the actors to improvise their characters within that structure, and then filming the best of those explorations. This allows the characters to lead the narrative and gives the performances a naturalism that many dramas lack. It also helps that all of these actors have worked with Leigh before. Jim Broadbent brings the charming gleam in his eye to the otherwise average Tom, toning down some of the eccentricity he's displayed in films like Moulin Rouge, while Ruth Sheen is delightfully down-to-earth as Gerri. She's warm and nurturing without seeming to lose any strength. Lesley Manville has largely been singled out for her portrayal of Mary as a vulnerable middle-aged woman who drinks too much. She's alternately tiring and charming, her obvious need for connection making her a tragic figure. Having Imelda Staunton as an unhappily married insomniac patient of Gerri's certainly doesn't hurt the acting credentials of the film.
On Blu-ray, Another Year looks good, if not great. Detail is fairly strong in this AVC-encoded transfer, but there's some softness during the film's darker scenes, and colors can be a bit variable. Part of that is surely the decision to use different film stocks for each season of the film, but skin tones could have been a bit more consistent. It's very watchable, but hardly the film for a Blu-ray reference disc. The 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack is a bit better, offering a surprising amount of clarity for the film's copious (and all-important) dialogue. No matter how much her drinking affected Mary's accent, each word was easy to understand, largely due to this excellent mix. Still, for those who have trouble with non-American accents, subtitles are provided. Like the film, the soundtrack is a bit subtle, using the surrounds for atmosphere in a few scenes, but leaving the center channel for the dialogue heavy lifting.
Extras start with a commentary featuring Mike Leigh and Lesley Manville (with the pair recorded together). They (especially Leigh) discuss the film's nuances, from production to what message each scene is trying to convey. Most of the talk comes from Leigh, and he's quick to share his insights into the film. There's little silence and only the occasional bit of description, making this a solid track for fans of the film. We're also treated to a standard EPK-style making-of that runs a hair under 13 minutes with input from the cast and crew interspersed with clips from the film. This information is supplemented by "The Mike Leigh Method" which looks at some of the more technical aspects of the film's completion, including the challenges of filming a year's worth of narrative in twelve weeks. The film's theatrical trailer is also included. A second disc contains a DVD copy of the film.
Another Year is not a fast-paced film, nor is it very "dramatic" in the sense of offering a noisy, tear-soaked denouement in which everyone reveals everything and catharsis is achieved. This film is very slow and very British. I guess that means it's doubly restrained, and audiences will have to be willing to let the film unfold to appreciate the portrait Leigh and company are drawing.
My only real complaint about Another Year is that it doesn't feel visually complete. A few times I felt like Leigh was going for an obvious camera angle because it was obvious, not because it was the best choice for the film. I wasn't looking for something visually complicated, but some of the shots just seemed out of place.
Another Year is a no-brainer for fans of Mike Leigh's other work. It's got the strong performances, simmering tensions, and quiet characters of his other work. This Blu-ray release does a fine job presenting the film, with a solid audiovisual presentation and enough extras to keep fans informed. It's also worth a rental to fans of restrained, minimalist drama, or anyone who's a fan of the actors.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* DVD Copy