Mike Leigh’s unconventional filmmaking methods tend to pay great dividends in terms of complicated relationships and comfortable dialogue, but not necessarily in terms of plot and structure. That’s the one knock against the otherwise terrific Another Year, yet another Leigh film where the script was filled out through in-character improvisation. The performances are winning, the story is surprising without relying on unlikely twists, and the relationships are the richest and most nuanced since Leigh’s Secrets & Lies. But midway through, Another Year shifts its attention to such a degree that it isn't clear whether it's lost the thread, or finally found it.
Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent star as a warmly happy sixtysomething couple, a pair still so in love, in synch, and comfortable in their skins that they have an excess of nurturing generosity to pour out over everyone in their lives, from their geeky unmarried son Oliver Maltman to Sheen’s hapless coworker Lesley Manville to Broadbent’s unhealthy, unhappy old friend Peter Wight. Sheen and Broadbent aren’t saints—they chuckle wryly over these and other lost lambs behind their backs—but as a year unfolds via four seasons and four roughly delineated stories, they treat their acquaintances with support, humor, and tenderness, trying to help them through their trials without taking over their lives or criticizing their choices. For a while, Another Year seems to be about a state of grace rarely seen in movies, and the way genuinely content people can serve not merely as object lessons, but as bulwarks for others in less settled circumstances. But as the film progresses, it becomes more about Manville’s ill luck, poor choices, and unlikely preferred solution to her problems.
Sheen delivers a particularly beautiful, lived-in performance, one of 2010’s best, but Manville almost one-ups her with a heartbreaking, knowingly portrayed role: Her character doesn’t know or care enough to keep her raw emotions off her face and out of her nonstop complaints, and her longing for Maltman and repulsion at Wight are understandable, yet endlessly embarrassing. Another Year would be a stronger film if it kept the focus either on her or on her friends, digging past the social surface and finding a strong through-line between them, instead of just sticking by whoever’s closest. In the end, Another Year doesn’t reveal enough about any of these characters. But it remains a finely observed character study, one focused on characters that movies don’t often bother observing.