Sunday, February 13, 2011

Another Year: Lifecycle of a Family

Mike Leigh’s smartly written Another Year stands out in a season of great movies for its studied portrayal of the “inexorable” aging of a British family and their friends, relatives, and hangers on.

This is a film that could well have been a novel, and though it is not the usual cinematic escapist fare (there are no spies or car chases, no “meet cutes,” no ribald affairs nor sordid entourages), it is a film relentlessly about our own real lives, and will greatly reward the eager cinemaphile.

Tom and Gerri Hemple are the sixty-ish couple in question. Tom (Jim Broadbent) is an engineering geologist (he “digs ditches,” as the family likes to tease with their insistence on disillusionment). Gerri, meanwhile, is a psychotherapist, dealing daily with difficult, unhappy recalcitrant patients. She doles out patient, sage advice (such as if you aren’t sleeping and are depressingly unhappy, you may need more than sleeping pills). “Why don’t you give that a think, won’t you?” is her standard retort when she ends up against the impenetrable barriers that the unhappy people around her erect to prevent themselves from dealing with their terrible truths. The two have managed to have a happy marriage for nearly thirty years, and it’s obvious that they both complement each other as well as have long ago worn away each other’s rough edges (Tom’s directness, earthiness, and temper has been modulated by Gerri’s self-reflection, deliberateness, and criticism – he encourages her freer side and she keeps him well regulated). With their quiet, paced, educated lives, their house filled with nick-knacks, books and Italian cooking, we see that they, in effect, are us: Baby Boomers (or nearly) who have seen three decades of social and political change and who are now nearing the autumn of life entrenched in the comfort of each other’s company.

The two have sired a son with what seems like the perfect combination of their traits: he’s both enthusiastic and tempered, a public advocate who approaches his job with gusto, but who privately remains a bit mysterious and self-satisfied. He presently has no girlfriend (when one finally does appear, Gerri comments, “he’s a bit of a dark horse, that one”). The trio, it seems, can do no wrong.

Perhaps this is why they have attracted friends who seem to be complete messes, and whose lives, in contrast, are studies in mistakes and regret. First there is Mary, Gerri’s co-worker, who has developed, over the years, an inappropriate obsession with Jerry’s son (as compensation for her own ruined relationships, she senses that she is aging quickly and is over-ready to attach herself to the nearest breathing male). Then there is Tom’s friend, Ken, whose boyhood friend has recently passed away (as has his wife) and whose college exploits are taunting memories. Ken has let himself get overweight and over-emotional and is a “there but for the grace of god go I” rebuke to Tom the way that Mary’s desperateness gently rebukes Gerri’s life.

There’s also an evil double for Joe, the son: a nephew named Rodney who proceeds to terrorize his father (Tom’s brother) after the death of his mother. Rodney resents the ministrations of Tom and Gerri as their natural understanding of what to do and how to handle the situation seems to be a rebuke to the anguish he wishes to languish in. In a brilliant moment, Joe and Rodney end up staring at each other after Rodney goes on a tirade and drives out all the guests from his father’s reception for the recently deceased mother. “What are you staring at,” says Rodney belligerently, just itching for a fight, in one of the movie’s few tense moments. “You,” says Joe - he holds Rodney’s gaze a moment longer, long enough to say, “I could take you,’ then averts his eyes, saying “but I won’t.”

The Hemples, then, and even their son, are a perfect measure of assertion and demureness, just enough to get through life's turmoils and challenges with a meager level of happiness, dignity, and bemusement. All that perfected modulation can't save some of the friends and family around them, whose self-absorbing unhappiness blinds them to the steps they need to take.

What’s lovely about this film is how it keeps all these characters in balance – the patient and mannered happiness of the main family (which we clearly see requires work to maintain – they way they maintain their share of the communal garden) – and the desperate, unhappy lives of the less fortunate friends and family around them. The film doesn’t really judge any of these characters, and it’s clear that their relationships are as complicated as real life. Tom and Gerri may administer to their friends, but they are also fiercely protective of their own family, and who they let in to the family isn’t just anyone (as is made clear by Katie - Joe’s new girlfriend – who’s spunky intelligence qualifies her for immediate acceptance, whereas Mary finds herself summarily tossed out after nearly thirty years). Perhaps they lead on their friends a bit too much; perhaps their friends take advantage a bit too much. Perhaps Gerri presses facing up to reality a bit too hard; perhaps her ability to do so is what has kept this family together and on track. Like life, all these contradictory thoughts seem well to be true.

I saw this movie while vacationing in the desert, and like a desert, the quiet subdued drama may be misleading. There are two main blow-ups (the second one well prepared), but a lot more said in the quiet moments of casual conversation, character study, and interaction. Like desert vegetation, a lot is here if you look for it. More than any movie in recent memory, Another Year slows down the drama and focuses on characters enough to really capture the inexorable patterns of friendship and family, or our real lives.

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