Mike Leigh, chronicler in chief of class and family in Britain, has boomer aging on his mind, and on the face of things he's in mellow form -- for him. If his last film, Happy-Go-Lucky, was about how hard it is to remain chipper against stacked odds, his latest centers on a couple who make domestic bliss look effortless.
In Another Year, now showing on many a Top 10 list, Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen play a long-married middle-class London couple heading into early old age. Tom and Gerri (ha!) hold jobs typical of old hippie lefties -- he's a geologist who shores up London's ancient sewage system; she's a counselor at a National Health Service clinic. They like to grow things, then cook and serve them to friends with a nice glass of wine, and the film ambles pleasurably through four seasons of their joint life, marking its contented rhythms and washing their unpretentious suburban home in a welcoming glow.
The only cloud on Tom and Gerri's horizon is that their son, Joe (played by comedian Oliver Maltman), is pushing 30 and lacks a girlfriend. Then again, Joe's single state is a mere blip compared with the misery of a crew of unhappy contemporaries (most of them played by Leigh regulars) who orbit the couple, dropping in for comfort and solace, or to make trouble. A fat childhood friend, Ken (Peter Wight), drowns his loneliness in too much food and drink, while Tom's near-comatose older brother, Ronnie -- played by David Bradley, better known as Argus Filch in the Harry Potter franchise -- has retreated from a wife and children whose unhappiness he probably caused.
But the prize loser of this sorry crew is Gerri's colleague Mary, a clingy, compulsive chatterer who seems to have rushed down every available wrong path by turns, and who never misses an opportunity to hijack a party with boozy, self-pitying monologues about her many burdens and sorrows. We've all met a variant of Mary, and though she's played by Lesley Manville with a show-stopping fervor that many are betting will earn her an Academy Award nomination, Mary made me cringe for all the wrong reasons. And that's to say nothing of Gerri, whose queenly serenity and frequent flights of therapy-speak -- "I'm not angry with you, Mary, but I feel you've let me down" -- would have been savagely lampooned in an early Mike Leigh work like the landmark Abigail's Party. Now they're clearly meant to lasso our approval.
For all its softly meditative tone, accessorized with a gentle acoustic score, Another Year is a stacked deck of a movie that draws a harshly unforgiving, sometimes smug line between boomers who've made good and those who've fallen by the wayside. Leigh aims for compassion, but he's always been a bit of a finger-wagger who shakes out his characters into doers he admires and those who just aren't trying hard enough -- Gerri vs. Mary in Another Year, or, in Happy-Go-Lucky, Sally Hawkins' chipper schoolteacher vs. Eddie Marsan's enraged driving instructor. It's a taxonomy that leaves little breathing space for troubled childhoods, honest mistakes or sheer rotten luck.
For a film about a generation that strove to transcend the traditional family, Another Year is also depressingly reactionary. Despite the fond reminiscences of their adventurous youth that punctuate the gatherings around Tom and Gerri's bountiful table, it seems that the choices now boil down to marriage and kids or a lonely old age without benefit of community. Given the wide array of living arrangements that currently shape our world and our movies, that seems anachronistically out of step with the times. Maybe that's Leigh's point.