'Another Year' explores the nature of happiness

Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as Tom and Gerri, a London couple in their 60s who are satisfied with their lives and supportive of each other.
Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as Tom and Gerri, a London couple in their 60s who are satisfied with their lives and supportive of each other.
Posted: January 28, 2011

Some chase happiness. Others radiate it.

Mike Leigh contrasts the two personality types in Another Year, his affectionate portrait of Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), a warm London couple in their 60s. As flower to sun, their less happy friends and relatives naturally gravitate to them.

Their secret? As Leigh frames the off-center couple, shaggy as figures in an Ed Koren cartoon, Tom and Gerri are content but never smug, moralists but nonjudgmental, supportive without crowding each other. Through squeeze of hand or exchange of glance, they maintain their connectedness while connecting to others. Tom, a geological engineer, understands the shifts and pressures of the Earth. Gerri, a psychologist employed by the National Health Service, understands the shifts and pressures of the psyche.

Leigh (Secrets and Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky) doesn't write scripts for his movies. He provides actors with characters and an outline of the proposed action. His players go forth and create characters from ground up and inside out. From their improvisations Leigh fashions a screenplay. This is why his films seem less like movies and more like windows into the homes and hearts and workplaces of real people. (A Leigh picture is not an ideal choice for those who go to movies for escape.)

During the film, I responded to Broadbent and Sheen not as actors playing roles, but as a good-humored couple I'd like to know. I responded to Lesley Manville as Mary, Gerri's coworker with the chirpy voice and peckish vibe, as I might a fellow partygoer who was drinking too much and talking too loud. I wanted to get as far away from her as I could.

In his film set over four seasons, from a scene of Tom and Gerri laughing and working in their garden to one of the despairing Mary at a dinner party, Leigh suggests the question: What makes Tom and Gerri so cheery, Mary so blue? Are happy people born that way? Or is the state something that can be attained?

The answer is not clear-cut. It's not just that Tom and Jerri have each other while Mary (like Tom's buddy, Ken) is a lonely alcoholic. It's that Tom and Gerri are life-affirmers. They accept the foibles of others. Mary and Ken are in denial about their imbibing and other behaviors.

It all comes down to affirmation vs. denial. Leigh chooses affirmation. And the result is life-affirming.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/.

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