29 November, 2010Issue 14.4Film & TVThe Arts

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The Division of the Kingdom

Alex Niven

foerMike Leigh
Another Year
Thin Man Films, 2010
129 minutes

Along with football, the BBC, Burial, and the bits of the public sector still standing, Mike Leigh is one of the last good things about the UK. His new film Another Year is a trenchant character-based portrait, an affirmation of the quotidian that continues a 40-year career of comic, humane filmmaking. But underneath the bathetic surface lies a bleak commentary on the endemic loneliness of Britain at the start of the new decade. This is a timely critique of a contemporary form of happiness that is exclusive and introverted, a satire on a prevailing worldview that wallows in good fortune and exiles sadness and suffering to the margins.

Another Year is very much another Mike Leigh film, a rehearsal of the grand motifs that underpinned films like Meantime (1983), Life is Sweet (1990), and Secrets and Lies (1996). All the familiar archetypes are present: the omnisciently wise mother figure, the siblings with divergent fortunes, the nervously garrulous, scene-stealing female lead. This is classic Leigh territory, but there are some nicely observed new touches. Alcohol is shockingly ubiquitous in this record of post-Blairite Britain; literally dozens of wine bottles cram the domestic settings, a fact all the more glaring because it is never really acknowledged by any of the leading characters. The omnipresence of booze in 21st-century cultural life has been largely passed over by the culture industry, so this is a pithy piece of contextual colour.

Predictably for a Leigh film, in terms of the narrative itself, not all that much happens. An affluent and happily married middle-class couple (Gerri and Tom) divide their time between their allotment garden (which appears briefly at intervals to illustrate the film’s Spring-Summer-Autumn-Winter frame) and a large, homey Victorian townhouse in a nice London neighbourhood. The latter provides the setting for a series of dinners and barbeques, during which it becomes clear that Gerri’s and Tom’s happiness is exceptional. One friend, Mary, is a promiscuous alcoholic 40-something unhealthily fixated on their smarmy 30-year-old son Joe (who somehow manages to look like both David Cameron and George Osbourne); another friend Ken, who has an unrequited passion for Mary, is also an alcoholic, dangerously overweight, and stuck in a rut at work.

Out of the sparklingly improvised conversations between these disparate characters, some key themes emerge. One simple, superficial one is that some people get lucky and others don’t. While Tom is a successful, university-educated geologist, his brother Ronnie, outstandingly played by David Bradley, has remained in Derby in a blackened terrace house. (He is also, as you might expect, another alcoholic.) On the surface of it, there is little explanation for the charmed existence of Tom and Gerri contrasted with the terrible bad luck of their friends and extended family. To a degree this tragedy—and despite the comic touches, the film is unequivocally a tragedy—appears to suggest that we are all prisoners of fate, and that is all there is to it.

However, such classical determinism exists at odds in Another Year with a very modern form of subjective individualism: the neoliberal doctrine of meritocracy, the idea that we are all given a fair shot at success, and if we find ourselves in serious trouble we must ultimately “help ourselves”. Gerri and Tom spend much of the film attempting to reach out to their unlucky counterparts. In many ways they are warm, altruistic people, making a concerted effort to establish a makeshift community in a thoroughly atomistic society. At times it is difficult to view them too harshly, especially Tom, who invites his brother into their London home after his wife has died, and who is on the whole a straightforwardly big-hearted character in the classic Jim Broadbent mould.

Nevertheless, Leigh also frequently throws emphasis on the dark flipside of the Gerri-Tom idyll, in ways that might lead one to view them less generously. They treat Mary condescendingly, continually addressing her by her first name in the manner of an infant, and she is swiftly excommunicated after being rude to Joe’s youthful new girlfriend. Ken is a similarly marginalised figure. After getting the train back to Hull following a boozy Gerri-Tom barbeque, he literally disappears from the film and is mentioned only once more (by Mary) in passing. Above all, you wonder how Tom’s northern relatives have been allowed to live quite such an impoverished, Dickensian existence. Ronnie may well have been too proud to accept financial help from his successful, upwardly mobile brother, but no such explanation is offered here. The shadow of a depressed north looms as a sinister, jarring presence in the film, a haunting contrast to the affluent bubble of suburban London. (In a telling real-life reflection of this, Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review of the film describes Derby as “Tom’s Lancashire hometown”; Gerri and Tom are not the only Londoners who see the north as a vague elsewhere, it seems.)

Support for the idea that Another Year is a critique of the bien pensant, nuclear family-centred complacency of Gerri’s and Tom’s world arrives in resounding style at the film’s close. Mary turns up out of the blue after her banishment, and is treated unsympathetically and patronisingly by Gerri, who appears finally to be a rather cold-hearted, sinister figure. “I just want to talk to you, you’re my friend” pleads Mary, to which Gerri impassively responds: “you need independent, professional help, Mary.” Gerri, a professional psychotherapist, seems to embody all the aloof, egocentric smugness of a 21st-century middle-class hooked on myths of privacy, individual merit, and a good life full of allotments and Beaujolais. As Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no such thing as society” inches ever closer to being a simple statement of fact in 2010s Britain, Gerri’s sense that we must all ultimately help ourselves is unfortunately all too apt.

All this is brought together brilliantly in a sensational closing shot. Gerri and Tom reminisce about the good times, about university and stints working abroad, and it becomes clear that their son Joe and his lively girlfriend Katie will inherit the family fortune: a lifestyle of healthy, organic prosperity (Katie is a psychotherapist like Gerri, and once had a job in Australia like Tom). As the camera begins a 360 pan around a lambent dinner table, the cosy familiarity of their dialogue seems to point to an upbeat conclusion. But then a stunning rotation reveals the faces of Mary and Ronnie: vacant, uncomprehending, and unfathomably lonely, a pair of melancholy memento mori gazing silently across a table that might as well be an ocean. In this final polarisation, Another Year gives poetic expression to a deeply divided society blithely unconscious of its own emphatic asymmetry. One hope is that somewhere in the Lear-like despair of these last expressions of Mary and Ronnie, there is a negative capability that might provoke a spirit of radical outrage.

Alex Niven is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St. John’s College, Oxford. Alex is a senior editor at The Oxonian Review.