Social realism stalks the circular edge of dying light encompassing veteran British director Mike Leigh's Another Year (2010), a tonal film of emotional complexity and the many manifestations of fear at having missed one's chance of ardent companionship, both sexual and sentimental. Framed metaphorically by the seasonal ebb and flow, Another Year begins in the Spring, showing off the quiet and inexhaustibly happy relationship between geologist Tom (a magnificent Jim Broadbent) and therapist Gerri (played with impressive subtlety by Ruth Sheen) as they tend to their local country patch. Whilst their happiness is enduring and their love for each other earnest, it smarts of stridency when compared to their luckless friends, who wistfully look on and wonder why it isn't theirs.
Mary is Gerri's friend and a secretary at the practice where Gerri works. Played brilliantly, with artful attention to detail and exceptional expressiveness by Lesley Manville, Mary is staring down a bleak future; a failed marriage and inability to find a suitor for her enamour, middling in age and feeling increasingly like a victim of a cruel world, she has turned to drink as an escape. The film offers no such escape to the audience, however, delving into her increasingly frenetic breakdown, scarcely masked by a visibly conscious effort to appear altogether and content.
Ken (Peter Wight) is Tom's friend, and shares an uncannily (and a little annoyingly) similar story to Mary. The similarities include failed relationships, and dour outlook and an addiction to food that mirrors Mary's propensity for wine. Ken is equal parts heartbreaking and off-putting - glugging heartily at the beer can which seems to be an extension of his hand, and then continuing to chew the food already in his mouth. This focus on vice is soon penetrated though, as he breaks down sobbing in front of Tom and Gerri, whose oracular guidance once again is inspired by tales of their shared happiness.
Whilst the film more than delivers a stunning cross-section of conjoined joy and hopelessness, an issue arises in that Another Year repeatedly lapses into ill-definition of intention, where the happy couple's (as well as their adult son's) demeanour seems as easily interpreted as facetious as benevolent. Knowing looks and (hopefully) unknowing perpetuation of a power-imbalance between the couple and their friends adds a potentially perverse nature to every offer of advice or invitation to dinner.
That Another Year starts with Spring, it's immediately striking with a burning ominousness that it will invariably end with Winter. As Mary's psyche begins to fray and her mask slips, scenes from what could be the film's prologue come to mind. A doctor analyses a clearly depressed woman, and after ascertaining her inability to sleep, begins questioning a number of potential causes - alcohol, drugs, caffeine. The role of vice as a coping mechanism overlays the biting realism of Another Year, and the dangers of escapism shine through. Special mention must be made of the wonderful dialogue - buoyant and fluid during Summer and Autumn, it peters into grasping monosyllables in Winter, and its insistence, although frustrating, is immaculately dynamic. Another Year is a contender for modernist excellence.