If "Another Year" comes off as unsatisfying, perhaps that's a testament to director Mike Leigh's affinity for depicting real life as it naturally unfolds. The movie doesn't have much of a plot, but it does have a strong sense of character, believable dialogue, and a definite theme, namely that life simply goes on. It's about ordinary people with ordinary problems; they may initially seem otherworldly, but they become more real as the film progresses, and by the end, we feel as if we've known them for years. This isn't to suggest that we automatically like all of them. You can understand a person and still think they're better suited in someone else's company. The film doesn't offer a lot in the way of resolution, but then again, neither does life, so I guess there's no sense in complaining.
Taking place in England, the center of the story is Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), and before you ask, yes, they get the occasional joke about how their names are pared. They're in their autumn years and have been married a long time. They're perfectly content; Tom is an engineering geologist, Gerri is a counselor, and after some years of travelling, the two now enjoy gardening and harvesting vegetables. Their thirty-year-old son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), hasn't yet found a girlfriend but is about as content as his parents. They address each other simply and don't seem to have any issues with one another. We follow them through the course of four seasons as they interact with friends and family, who all seem to suffer from some degree of unhappiness.
The most prominent is Gerri's coworker, Mary (Lesley Manville). At first, she's a comical figure, a woman who can't seem to stop talking and always nurses a glass of wine. With every passing scene, she becomes more and more tragic until we realize that she's a desperately lonely alcoholic in serious need of professional help. She has known Joe since he was ten, and now that he's a man, she finds that she's incredibly attracted to him. He doesn't feel the same way, but he never avoids her; in fact, there are times when he makes it a point to have a conversation with her. And, when he finally does get a girlfriend, he isn't afraid to introduce her to Mary, who, as you can probably guess, is crushed. She realizes that she wasn't ready for her first marriage. She finally fell in love in her thirties, but it was to a man who ultimately divorced her and left her with nothing. At this advanced stage in her life, she just wants someone to talk to.
Mary's life is symbolized by a used car she purchased with what little money she had stashed away. We never see it fall to pieces, but there are a couple of densely worded scenes in which she rants about the mechanical problems, the break-ins, and the financial woes they entail. She's a terrible driver and gets lost quite easily, even on routes she has successfully walked many times. She relies a little too often on take-away food, since she's not much of a cook and hasn't dated anyone who would take that responsibility. She says in an early scene that she's happy to be independent, but the fact is, she wants to be taken care of. Gerri addresses her just as simply as she does her husband; if she considers Mary a friend, then I find it peculiar she didn't make more of an effort to get her help. She is, after all, a counselor.
Other characters are introduced. Some are written out much sooner than we'd expect them to be, begging the question of why they were included in the first place. Consider Tom's friend, Ken (Peter Wight), who's aging, overweight, a smoker, a drinker, and being dragged into retirement kicking and screaming. He realizes, with depressing clarity, that he doesn't want to take the train back home, for there's absolutely nothing there waiting for him. He's attracted to Mary. She most certainly doesn't feel the same way about him. The most curious character is Janet (Imelda Staunton), who appears in exactly two scenes as a clinically depressed insomniac unwilling to partake in Gerri's counseling. When the film was over, I was certain that nothing would have been lost had this character been eliminated.
A more substantial but equally subdued subplot is introduced later in the film, when Tom attends the funeral of his sister-in-law and invites his brother, Ronnie (David Bradley), to stay with him for a couple of days. Ronnie's son, Carl (Martin Savage), is an undependable hothead who I suspect was that way long before the death of his mother. Ronnie and Mary eventually have a conversation, although Mary does most of the talking. Is this her story? It might seem that way, especially since she's the subject of the final shot. Still, I have a feeling that "Another Year" isn't anyone's story in particular. Friends come and go. Families get together and separate. People live, people die - seasons change. I grant you that this isn't a particularly fulfilling message. But this is a movie about the mundane, about still frames in people's lives. You see this movie, and then you move on.