A difficult film, a very difficult film for me. When I saw it at the London Film Festival I disliked it intensely and that was the reaction of at least one member of the audience at the Lexi when I showed it last month : ” I hated every minute of it”, “Very depressing” was another comment.
I delayed blogging about the film trying to find a key to understand this confused and confusing film and my own reaction to it. The reviews did not help. Apart from two or three dissenting voices they were all highly complimentary. But the comments are so contradictory. : Ebert: “…characters I could love, feel uneasy about, identify with or be appalled by. ” Longworth in Village Voice ” The further the characters are etched, the harder it becomes to figure out with whom Leigh intends us to identify. I haven’t seen a film this year that so openly invited me to revile each and every one of its characters…” Cruel, compassionate, mature and wise. Life’s joys and sorrows. Study of contentment. Tragedy. None of the reviewers satisfied my search for meaning and the source of my displeasure.
Amongst my friends there was the division that Bradshaw ( 2010 Nov 4th The Guardian) reports. Since this film was shown at Cannes earlier this year, a division of opinion has emerged among audiences about its two lead characters, and I have found myself shuttling between these views. Some think they are simply what they seem: sane, nice people, and instead of being on the alert for irony, we could and should simply admire them. But there is an alternative view: namely, that Gerri and Tom are not all that admirable, but subtly complacent and self-satisfied, and we are misunderstanding the parasitism of their relationship with Mary.
A paper presented at the Acting their Age conference entitled: “Feminist potential of haptic cinema and narrative form in Mike Leigh’s treatment of age in Another Year ” muddied the water still further for me. Brewis did talk about ageing but I cannot feel the haptic quality and I detect no feminist potential in this film.
In our Older Women in Film Group discussion many aspects of the film emerged: the ambiguous title: Another Year, the irony of the names Tom and Gerri and its connotations, loneliness, alcoholism, ageing, problems of communication, insensitivity of the caring professions to old age, the way middle class and working class are treated , the value of counselling, the fragility of friendship, does one have to be a certain age to appreciate the film?
It is during this discussion that the reasons for my discomfort and displeasure about the film were revealed to me. Over the weeks thinking about the film and the different comments about it, I felt that I was rummaging in a dustbin full of discarded items trying to make sense of the whole. I felt the viewers picked the items that appealed to them and ignored the rest. That is why I find the film so difficult, I could not see the whole. I know characters very much like Mary, and Manville’s performance was remarkable. I also appreciate the burn out of Gerri the counsellor whose stereotyped comforting hugs to all and sundry are cold and unemotional. And the smugness of long married couples does ring a bell with me married for over 50 years. What disturbed me are not the characters and their interactions. It is the contrast between the realistic characters and the strong, cold direction and slight narrative.
A detailed analysis of the film would show that far from being a ‘slice of life’ realist film it is a very tightly structured film devoid of emotional appeal. Every character is carefully chosen and there is a disturbing symmetry in their characteristics. Mary, Gerri’s friend, and Ken, Tom’s friend are both lonely unhappy individuals who drink and smoke too much and cannot manage their lives. The seemingly contented couple Tom and Gerri are reproduced by the son Joe and Katie his fiancé. Both Gerri and Katie are in the caring professions. Katie’s ebullience, echoes Mary’s. The silent grieving sad inarticulate working class Ron can be paired with the withdrawn Janet… Disturbed unemployed Carl contrasts with Joe the London professional. Even the minor characters are very deliberately devised. Off screen Tom colleague’s wife’s is depressed and overweight and Tanya’s husband is described as ineffectual. Apart from the characters this same symmetry is shown in the themes deliberately exposed: talking with friends and talking with professionals, birth and a death, male friendships and women friendships, middle classes and working classes, Mary’s unwelcome advances to Joe and Ken’s to Mary etc…
In this balancing act details needle my old feminist’s consciousness. There are only two warm touching sensitive moments in this dispassionate film. Both show the tender side of Tom and Ron. Throughout the film Gerri dispenses her hugs freely be it to her best friend or Carl the nephew she barely knows. Her face, seen over the shoulder of the people she comforts remains cold and uninvolved. But the hug that Tom gives his brother Ron in his bereavement is precious. We see Ron’s face surprised by his brother’s gesture and then he slowly responds by putting tentatively his gnarled hand on Tom’s shoulder. The sequences between Mary and Ron around the table where formal meals have been provided by Tom and Gerri in a ritual unthinking way also show some warm feelings. There is a certain rapport between the two sad characters and to see Ron respond to Mary’s needs is a surprise. At the table, in response to Mary’s : “I have not eaten today” Ron asks gently : “do you want some toast?” But this closeness does not last and the final slow panning shot that rests on Mary’s face isolates her again.
From my old feminist point of view I reacted very strongly to the early scenes between Janet, Tanya the doctor, and Gerri the counsellor. Both Tanya and Gerri were insensitive to their patient and unable to communicate with her. Staunton played a depressed and sad Janet to perfection. It is when Tanya, interrogated Janet ” How about you? Have you started your menopause?” that I was startled and annoyed. Janet seemed to me to be well past her menopause. I think now that this interchange is the key to my resistance to the film. Age, menopause, unhappiness. Indeed my first reaction although intuitive pointed to what I see now after our OWFG discussion as the film’s underlying disturbing and gendered view of ageing.
In reviews, the pre-titles scenes with Janet’s face in close ups are referred to very occasionally and in connection with Staunton’s acting only. The final protracted shot of Mary’s face is widely commented on. Yet these two sequences frame the whole film and give it some unity. It is important to start by considering the physical signs of age and how difficult it is to assign a chronological age to women’s faces on screen. Staunton and Manville are the same age (54) Sheen is older (58). Yet whereas the subject of physical ageing is hardly an issue where Gerri is concerned , physical ageing of the face is paramount in Janet’s and Mary’s images and are connected with unhappiness . We start with a worn out Janet. Staunton’s face and neck are not made up and although fine lines are not prominent every fold is visible in close ups and express a deep weariness. When Mary appears, her face is made up, unruly wisps of hair frame it and her vivacity denotes a lot of energy. At the end of the film, her face is unmade, her hair lank and her expressionless lined face throws us back to Janet’s, defeated by life.
Apart from the title denoting time passing, ageing is profusely referred to in the dialogue by both male and female characters. Both Ken and Mary talk about the problems of getting older directly. Their loneliness contrast with quiet, contented Tom and Gerri whose lives are in tune with the nature in their allotment. But to balance the quiet contentment of later life we are presented with Janet’s unfulfilled life with working husband and son, and no relationship with her daughter. Also with unemployed Ken who had been dependent on his working wife and is left helpless on her death.
In an interview in Cannes Mike Leigh says that the film is a tragi comedy about ‘life’, that viewers have to interact with it and make up their own mind etc… I would reply that I found that the film on the contrary does not permit me to make my own mind but bullies me. Ageing, from prostate problems to middle age spread and white hair is presented with no subtlety. Characters and themes are thrown in my face in a way that does not lead to reflection but presents a biased point of view not evident on first viewing. A lasting marriage is depicted as frictionless. Male friendship is seen as caring and fun while female friendship is brittle and breaks easily. Being single is lonely. Being in the caring profession renders you cold. Ageing renders you smug or despaired.