Does time truly heal all wounds? Or does it only exacerbate the pain of living? It's a little from column A and a little from column B in "Another Year," the 11th feature film from British master Mike Leigh ("Happy-Go-Lucky").
Leigh hit his stride in the 1990s as he firmed up a narrative style involving ensemble casts, rigorous character work and ample improvisation. No exception, the gently moving dramedy "Another Year" observes a sprawl of friends and family linked by their emotional dependence on the happily married Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen). Geologist Tom and counselor Gerri are enjoying days of wine and roses: chatty dinners and satisfying hours spent gardening their community allotment. They're literally down-to-earth.
They also spend plenty of quality time with their affable son Joe (Oliver Maltman), unhealthy old friend Ken (Peter Wight), Tom's taciturn brother Ronnie (David Bradley) and, above all, Gerri's unshakeable work colleague Mary (Leslie Manville), whose neediness knows no bounds. Tom and Gerri prove to be a couple for all seasons, and Leigh structures the film accordingly, with acts set in spring, summer, autumn and winter.
Though Tom and Gerri hold the film's mostly serene center, the dominant personality belongs to the blustery Mary, who never refuses a drink. Her restless self-examination and bluff outbursts of optimism (which mask an aching social desperation) effectively keep Gerri on the clock. Though Mary shows no sign that she's aware of her increasing imposition, she does sum up the service provided by her married friends: "Everybody needs someone to talk to, don't they?"
Leigh's approach is "slice of life," eschewing direct exposition in favor of eavesdropping on significant days in the lives of the characters. A summer barbecue, for instance, finds the romantically available at cross-purposes: Though Ken is interested, Mary wants nothing to do with him. Instead, she's rather hopefully set her sights on the conspicuously younger Joe. But this is no Hollywood romantic comedy. In achieving a credible realism, Leigh and his actors refreshingly avoid the tidy and obvious.
With winter comes a darker movement involving an off-screen death but also unexpected hope of deliverance for despairing souls. As such, the final act serves as something of a rebuke to the character we meet in the film's prologue, a depressed client (Imelda Staunton) of Gerri's who insists, "Nothing changes." Gerri's patient empathy ("Life's not always kind, is it?") -- and that of her husband -- reflects the inclusiveness and generosity of Leigh's humane storytelling.
Gary Yershon supplies fittingly lovely music, and Leigh's longtime director of photography Dick Pope evocatively expresses the changing seasons in cinematographic language. But above all, Leigh's films rise on the strength of his performers. In her seventh Leigh film, Manville skillfully embodies Mary's frantic yearning, and Broadbent and Sheen are positively darling: as seemingly real and inviting as one's own best friends.
The film makes no overt reach for profundity, but it does quietly affirm that there'll always be another year -- with or without us. It's reason enough to be hopeful, and to make the most of what and whom we have while time still belongs to us.