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Thursday, 27 January 2011

Us vs. Them: Another Year

Mike Leigh’s latest film is full of warmth and humanity – so long as you’re on the right side of the line. There’s no serious arguing that the line isn’t there in this modern-day London of haves and have-nots: on one side are our nominal leads, content 60-somethings Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), their son Joe (Oliver Maltman) and his bubbly partner Katie (Karina Fernandez), and contented mother Tanya (Michele Austin).

What puts them ahead of the pack isn’t so much their wealth – though they all seem to be doing ok – but their emotional well-being. They’re all happy with their lot, leading lives full of love and companionship. Meanwhile, sharing the same physical space but off in a world of hurt, are the have-nots: Mary (Lesley Manville), the somewhat scattered co-worker of Gerri and Tanya, and Ken (Peter Wright), Tom’s childhood friend. They’re crushingly sad, constantly alone, and more often than not hitting the booze a little too hard.

Set over the course of a year, the film basically charts Tom & Gerri’s social life as Mary outstays her welcome, Ken drops in for a visit, Joe finds a partner and eventually Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley) appears on the scene after the sudden death of his wife. There’s no massive dramas here or large-scale character shifts, which makes its subtle distinctions all the more devastating: some people just live lives of warmth and happiness, and some don’t.

But why? What causes this sharp divide? A clue lies in the two characters that undergo serious change in their situation across the length of the film: Joe finds a girlfriend and Ronnie loses a wife (though we don’t actually see him while his wife was alive). It could be argued that these changes make no difference to their well-being: Joe seems pretty happy when we first meet him as a single man, and while we have no idea what Ronnie was like when his wife was alive, his non-existent relationship with his angry – and presumably single - son Carl (Martin Savage) suggests he wasn’t an ideal father.

If that’s the case though and having a partner makes no difference to Joes well-being, why does he find someone at all? Well, he’s clearly been looking for a girlfriend (not every single person is), and there’s no suggestion that she makes his life worse – according to Gerri & Tom, his having a partner is a distinct improvement over his being single. As for Ronnie, he’s not exactly jumping for joy over the death of his wife: suddenly becoming single is clearly not a step forward for him.

Joe’s finding a partner does fulfil another plot function: it separates him from Mary. When he’s single, she’s constantly making moves on him – moves he rebuffs, if gently. When his partner arrives on the scene, Mary sulks, and her hostility poisons her relationship with Tom & Gerri too.

You could also argue that Ken’s character’s role in the plot is also Mary-centric: he’s single, he hits on her, and she knocks him back. As the film develops the focus is increasingly on her: if everyone else is there simply to illustrate aspects of her character, then the only real divide here is between her and everyone else.

Unfortunately for that argument, while Mary is increasingly the film’s focus, there are enough scenes around Tom & Gerri (and without Mary) to make clear that this is a film about a group of people. And as a group, there are clear haves and have-nots. After all, if Ken is there simply to show that Mary rejects companionship, why make him so pathetic? Is a fellow lonely drunk the best she can expect? If so, that only re-enforces the divide: Gerri gets the warm-hearted Tom, Mary gets a drunk a brisk walk away from a heart attack.

As for Joe, his move into coupledom certainly distances him from Mary, but that also only re-enforces the divide: he escapes Mary and her sad drunken world not by getting a better job or an exciting new hobby, but by finding a partner. It’s made plain and clear - all the single people in this film are sad, all the people with partners are happy. Dark pasts and failed relationships might be hinted at to explain Mary and Ken's current state, but they're only hints: as far as what we're shown on the screen goes, they're single, therefore they're unhappy. And being single is their own fault. After all, Joe found a girl, and look how well that worked out.

That said, this is largely a film about older people: could it be that it’s their attitude to aging that’s depressing them? After all, Ken and Mary are still out and about trying to keep up with the kids; Tom & Gerri have settled down into a comfy later life, pottering around down the allotment and so on. Maybe accepting your age is the key to happiness here?

Trouble there is, both Ken and Mary are single, and trying to find a partner is a young person’s game. The film might archly suggest that they’re a bit past it as far as hanging around pubs goes, but how else are they supposed to find someone? They’re merely the last ones left at the life-long session of relationship musical chairs, going through the same motions to try and find someone long after everyone else has paired up and gone home.

All this wouldn’t be so bad if the film itself didn’t clearly take sides. Mary and Ken are seen as mildly annoying impositions on (and by) Tom & Gerri (in contrast, they love Joes’ new partner), while Mary and Ken seek out Tom & Gerri for friendship. It’s a world where single people hit the bottle and annoy their partnered friends, who tolerate their presence at best – usually while rolling their eyes the second they’re gone as they snuggle up together in a big cosy bed. Mary, on the other hand, gets a shit car.

Clearly, the clock is ticking: if you’re single and you don’t find someone, you’ll be left on the shelf. The consequences of which are spelt out plain for all to see across Another Year’s two hours: single people are ditzy, often drunk, pathetic and painfully needy, worthy of little more than subtle contempt and dismay from their paired-off “friends”.

If this wasn’t harsh enough, Another Year opens with Tanya (who’s a doctor) trying to help a clearly closed-off and clinically depressed woman (Imelda Staunton). She’s never seen again after the opening scene, but her pinched-off answers to Tanya’s questions suggest a world where people lock themselves into personal prisons and refuse all help to escape. You’re sad because you’re single, and being single is all your fault.

Anthony Morris


  1. Whoa! Passionately argued Tony!
    You make a convincing case, but I thought Imelda Staunton's cameo as Janet (who was married, no?) was more about setting the landscape of emotional intelligence, insight and desperation. Janet resolutely did NOT want to go through therapy to and gain some insight into her manifold problems, and similarly Mary seemed incapable of self-awareness. She knew she was lonely, sure, but she had no emotional intelligence whatsoever.
    As you say, it's about 'emotional well-being' in the case of the haves and the have nots, but I would argue that contentment has to come from within, not from a partner. Then again, you're right that the film seems to privilege coupledom over singledom, so...pour me a glass of wine ay?

  2. This is a very well-argued case, although I do think you're approaching it from the wrong angle.

    I don't think these characters are miserable because they're single; rather they're single because they're miserable. The reason such a high premium is placed on relationships being the cure-all is that many people consider that to be the answer to all their problems.

    Tom and Gerry don't have things particularly better, other than the fact that they have the benefit of dual incomes, and Gerry is shown to be in the same workplace as Mary. Tom and Gerry are contented, easy-going people, and there's nothing to suggest that came about because they suddenly hooked up. Similarly, Joe seems relatively happy in his life early on when he's single; he doesn't go from a crackpot to a well-rounded guy because a girl comes into his life.

    Mary has her heart set on a feller (and, at one point, a car) as being the solution to her unhappiness, and despite the fact that she works with therapists and psychologists, she doesn't realise that the answers are actually a lot more complicated than the acquisition of A New Object.

    As you pointed out, the film mostly centers around older people, but this is to illustrate that everybody has baggage. They've all accumulated a lifetime of baggage, and some people deal with it well and others don't. Mary is welcome in their lives up until the point she lets her baggage hurt other people; then she's gone too far, and I don't think that's an unreasonable position on Leigh's part.

    I share a similar dislike for films that suggest that only people in relationships -- or, just as commonly, people in a standard nuclear family -- can be happy, but that's not the case here.

    To borrow and rephrase your final line: "You're single because you're sad, and being sad cannot be solved by suddenly meeting someone."

  3. I kinda agree with you Lee - but I'd agree with you a lot more if the film featured a single single person who was a): happy and b): stayed single.

    On an individual, character-by-character basis you're right to say there's no real link between getting hitched and being happy here - it's just when you pull back and go "wait, where are the happy singles (or the shitty relationships, Stanton's cameo aside)" that the imbalance becomes clear.