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01.26.11

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Phaedra
SET 'EM UP: Lesley Manville is dinner-crashing friend Mary in director Mike Leigh's latest.

Nation of Two

'Another Year' a vivid dissection of happiness

By Richard von Busack


Such is Another Year: as suffused with harmony as a great work of Asian art, and alive with the wit and compassion that have made Mike Leigh a master director of comedies. Leigh's newest is a study in dichotomy: Tom and Gerri, an aging, hard-working couple in the suburbs of London, contrasted with the life of their high-maintenance friend Mary (Lesley Manville). Mary is on the downward spiral; the incline is slight at first, but eventually impossible to ignore.

In a sense, Tom and Gerri both work in the public health business. He (the ever jovial Jim Broadbent) is a structural engineer working on an expansion of the antiquated London sewer system; she (Ruth Sheen) is a psychological counselor at a clinic. Four times over the course of a year, this likable pair have some people over for wine and dinner. The constant in all these dinners is Mary, who progresses from a welcome guest to a friend in constant need.

Essential to this film's humanity is Broadbent's gregariousness. He's quite subtle in the craft of displaying degrees of welcome and warmth. The beaky, comical Sheen is also a treat, no matter what little we've seen of her since Leigh's High Hopes (1988), the best movie ever made about a woman wanting to have a baby. Sheen has a quality of amusement and shrewdness, and a vivacity that makes conventionally pretty people look pudding-faced.

Karina Fernandez, who supplied some superb dialect comedy in Happy-Go-Lucky as a flamenco teacher, is similarly delightful as a charming girlfriend to Tom and Gerri's son. In one key scene, she pantomimes suicidal anguish at the news that Mary has crashed a dinner party. There's another startling face in the film: the sepulchral David Bradley (famous as Hogwarts' caretaker Argus Filch). He plays Tom's newly widowed brother, refusing to admit his own loss and proving that happiness isn't hereditary.

Another Year's glancing, four-seasons approach doesn't turn the film into a series of sketches. Far from it. The theme of the transitory nature of happiness is well served. It takes so little to make happiness flee: chronic bad luck that you can't laugh at; a little substance abuse, maybe; too much pride and prejudice; inability to take the long view.

If Another Year is a four-paneled study instead of a wide canvas like Secrets and Lies, the figures are deep and well conceived, perhaps idealized but not sweetened. Somewhere there must be husbands and wives in such perfect accord—somewhere, fathers and sons with such cordiality, respect and a touch of necessary distance.

The true sweetness of Tom and Gerri's life is not really apparent until the final monologue. The perfect couple is a "nation of two," in Kurt Vonnegut's phrase from Mother Night. What we see in this marriage is more like a world of two. Manville's acting, absolutely wounding to watch, shows what it's like to be an exile from that wide world. There's genuine horror in her desperation, and it's like watching a woman freeze to death in front of us.

'Another Year' is showing at CinArts at Sequoia, 25 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley. 415.388.1190.


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