Mike Leigh first really grabbed me with his 1993 masterpiece Naked. Another Year shows that Leigh is still in top form. Divided into seasonal sections beginning with Spring, the film tracks husband and wife Tom and Gerri, their alcoholic, depressed friends and son, Joe.
How does Leigh get such great performances? Everyone here gives a fully realized turn, led by the always dependable Jim Broadbent. I particularly liked David Bradley’s quiet Ronnie – Tom’s recently widowed brother. He brought an unspoken grief and anger to a subtly difficult role.
Another Year is many things, and among them it is a master class on the use of the closeup. Closeups are over-used. The common refrain is that you use your closeups to express the internal emotion of a character. True enough, to an extent, but there’s also something to be said about saving your closeups – something I strive to do in my own films. A shot saved has all the more power when finally appearing on screen.
Consider a conversation between Mary (Gerri’s depressed, alcoholic and desperately-single middle-aged friend) and the son Joe. Mary is a bit drunk and the subtext of the conversation and her varying degrees of eye contact tell us that she’s hitting on him. At a particularly overt line Leigh moves us from medium shots of the two and hits us with a tightly framed closeup of Mary. It’s a moment when perhaps she realizes, along with the rest of us, her real level of desperation. Performance and frame combine to give an overwhelmingly emotional and satisfying moment. Pure directing right here.
Leigh really strays from using insert shots. A curious observation maybe, but I think a testament to the performances he gets and his staging of the action. He always feels in control and there is never a moment when a cutaway feels necessary to hide a weakness or help the flow. This is a film that would still work in a series of long master shots, but Leigh orchestrates his coverage to great cinematic effect.
The final chapter, Winter, begins with a funeral. The color palette turns appropriately bleaker and dialogue is, comparatively, at a minimum. The ending encounter between Mary and Ronnie is awkward and poignant at once – two character caught adrift sharing random observations where the only meaningful aspect is the exchange of words as a type of solace.
Leigh also knows how to end a scene and how to punctuate tone with a perfect shot. Two to consider: the end of a golfing outing frames the pin in the lower part of the frame. At the top we can see the four golfer’s feet. Long shadows make up the rest of the frame design. We hear the offscreen dialogue and watch as the ball rolls a good distance into the cup. The visual focus is on the putt, the aural on the conversation, the combination yielding a simple and fun moment. The end to a great day interestingly shot and as “prologue” to the emotionally stormy barbeque that is to follow.
The second shot occurs when Mary, after a night of drinking, prepares to leave Tom and Gerri’s home to catch a train. Joe arrives and he and Mary have their first onscreen encounter. At her moment of departure Leigh frames the four of them, Mary with her back to camera and in focus, the other three behind her and looking at her and towards camera. Mary turns to camera and looks past it, in the direction of her departure and the train. The camera is distanced enough for us to feel her isolation, but close enough to register that same feeling on her face. Here is a moment that says very much without saying it. Mary is hesitant to leave. Nothing is waiting for her, but this isn’t her home either.