Mike Leigh has fashioned a typically absorbing drama in Another Year, about a content, middle-aged husband and wife and their unhappy single friend. Leigh famously develops his films by having his actors improvise in character, and what we have here is, chiefly, a set of vividly, subtly portrayed characters.
Almost secondarily, there is a sad, quietly told story. Unlike more conventional films, the plotting in this one doesn't call much attention to itself, and by the end we have arrived at a place not dramatically different from where we began - except that one already-fragile character is despairing. Leigh has a knack for creating uncomfortable situations, and there are plenty of them here.
Another Year unfolds over, yes, the course of a year, and titles indicate the passing seasons. We meet Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a therapist, and her geologist husband Tom (Jim Broadbent). They're a happy couple, aging placidly, who spend their happiest moments tending their community garden plot. We also meet Gerri's coworker Mary (Lesley Manville), who doesn't have many happy moments. She is single and worries about it, and she drinks too much and cries. Mary has known her friends' thirtysomething son Joe (Oliver Maltman) since he was little, and sometimes, tipsy at parties, she flirts with the much younger man.
I can't say much more than that without denying you the delicious agony of what develops. I can say there are numerous peripheral characters whose stories intertwine artfully, ambiguously, with the main action.
In the past Leigh hasn't shied from addressing controversial topics - abortion in Vera Drake, for example, and race in Secrets and Lies. The tone of Another Year is much lighter than those films', and his theme this time isn't a hot-button issue. But it's a thorny matter just the same: friendship. That's a familiar motif in films, from buddy-cop movies to Apatowian bromance vehicles, but I can't recall when I've seen a film that's more nuanced and honest about friendship, about its rewards and obligations, about how wrenching it is when a friendship ends.