It was all going so well. Too well as it happens. I’d managed to sit through several films at this festival with the Prick-o-Meter barely registering an amber alert.
Just as night follows day, though, and I got my first genuine knobhead while sitting patiently for the start of Mike Leigh’s latest Another Year.
I’ve had an irritating cold over the past week or so and am still needing to blow my nose from time to time. I made sure to clear the nasal pipes before the film started, only for the gentleman, whom it would be fair to describe as grossly rotund, sitting next to me to ask: “Are you going to be doing that throughout the film?”
Now, because I’ve been brought up properly, I bit my tongue, smiled and reassuringly replied: “Fear not, I think that’s the worst of it.” He nodded and the film began.
You’d think that a person who raises the principle of noise reduction wouldn’t then breathe throughout the entire film as if he wasn’t a fish that had been lobbed on a bank and left to suffocate. Alas, he did. In a hushed environment, someone who is officially The Noisiest Breather in the World tends to stand out and his gasps for air got so ridiculously loud that tutting could be heard throughout the cinema.
But even this hypocrite couldn’t spoil yet another first-rate effort from one of the UK’s most treasured possessions.
The world really would be a worse place without Mike Leigh. Naked (1993), Secrets & Lies (1996), Vera Drake (2004), Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) – these are just a handful of titles from a director who has pretty much made the kitchen sink drama his own.
Another Year continues this fine tradition. Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are a happy, contented couple living a happy, contented life, whether that’s on their allotment or in their warmly inviting London home.
The only problem is that everyone around them is in tatters. There’s Gerri’s friend Mary and Tom’s old pal Ken (Peter Wight), who comes to visit for the weekend from Hull. Both of them are desperately lonely, wounded people who see in Tom and Gerri what they think they need to fulfill their lives.
As the seasons come and go (hats off to Dick Pope’s beautiful cinematography), things grow (in the case of Tom and Gerri’s son Joe, it’s a new relationship), while others die, most notably Tom’s sister-in-law, but the one constant is the love felt by Tom and Gerri. They both understand they are closer to the end of their lives than the beginning, but as long as they are together that’s all that matters.
The structure of Another Year is such that each season feels like its own episode. Appropriately, winter brings the film’s bleakest moments, specifically the funeral in which we are introduced to Tom’s brother Ronnie (an understated turn by David Bradley), another lost soul, and Ronnie’s angry, agressive son Carl (Martin Savage).
As you’d expect in any Leigh film, the ensemble is excellent. Sheen exudes a patient calm as Gerri, while Broadbent makes this whole acting lark look effortless.
However, it’s Lesley Manville who shines the brightest as Mary. Her cheery front masks a self-loathing and desperation that can only be supressed by copious amounts of wine. Like Ken, Mary is clinging on by her fingernails and the final shot of Mary looking utterly lost as she sits at Tom and Gerri’s dinner table surrounded by happy friends is both heart-breaking and devastating at the same time.
Leigh in the post-film Q&A said that what he wanted to do with Another Year was to show the lives of people “my own age”. When it’s done this gracefully, I’d happily spend many more years with these characters.
Leigh’s films have often been categorised as ‘social-realist’, a term that has also been applied to the work of co-writers/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden.
Their Oscar-nominated debut feature Half Nelson (2006) and its follow-up Sugar (2008) both dealt with individuals struggling to cope with what’s expected of them (in Half Nelson it was an inner-city teacher, in Sugar a teenager who immigrates from the Dominican Republic to play minor league baseball). This theme is explored again in It’s Kind Of A Funny Story.
Based on Ned Vizzini’s novel, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story follows 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist), who convinces an ER doctor to admit him to a New York psych ward after insisting he is on the brink of committing suicide.
Thinking he’s just going to be prescribed some pills and sent on his way, Craig is shocked when he’s told he must serve a minimum of five days in the ward. Worse still he’s going to have to share it with adults as the youth facility is being renovated.
Craig is convinced he’s a no-hoper and a disappointment to his parents. In an amusing scene we see how he equates possible failure to get into an esteemed summer school with failure in later life, a sentiment shared by most teenagers at that age, myself included.
Craig is taken under the wing of kindly, damaged Bobby (The Hangover‘s Zach Galifianakis), who introduces him to the colourful array of patients, all of whom are messed up in some way or another.
So far, so mwehh. But what lifts It’s Kind Of A Funny Story out of the Feel Good Hit Of The Year! blandness is the astute way Fleck and Boden avoid falling into many of the pitfalls a film of this type is loaded with.
I say many, but not all, as the film follows a trajectory you can see coming from a mile away and some of the scenes, especially towards the end, slide inexorably into schmaltz.
That being said, the interplay between Gilchrist and a never-better Galifianakis is great, while the way the film depicts the lives of teenagers is about as believable as you’re going to see on screen. Emma Roberts also has a likeable turn as Noelle, a fellow patient who forms a connection with the unhappy, but naturally gifted Craig.
It feels like a step back after the excellent Sugar, but by the film’s feel-good conclusion you can’t help but be swept along, schmaltz and all.