Mike Leigh has always been known for making movies more about characters than stories, building his script around the improvisation of his actors as they learn who their characters really are. With his last two films, he seems to be trying something else as well; he wants to tell stories about happy people. I loved “Happy-Go-Lucky,” his last film, which starred Sally Harris as an eternally cheery schoolteacher who refuses to let the satanic ramblings of her driving instructor (played memorably by Eddie Marsan) get her down. It’s an engaging battle of personalities, and Harris wins out in the end.
Leigh tries to do the same thing with “Another Year,” and, while there are plenty of things to love about this film, it doesn’t quite work as well. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen do great work as a happily married couple; you will want to meet these people, and maybe to be like them. Around them swirl a milieu of friends who are quite as happy, wise or well-adjusted, and they continually, consistently extend grace, and hospitality – but never judgment – to their friends, providing a safe place for them to reflect on how their lives went wrong, and what to do next.
The problem with “Another Year” is that it lets the unhappy people overwhelm the happy ones. Lesley Manville, a Leigh regular, plays a friend and co-worker of Sheen’s who is lonely and overly emotional and almost pathologically incapable of making a good choice for herself. The character is supposed to be a little bit annoying; we are privy to Sheen and Broadbent’s expressions of annoyance at her intrusions and impropriety – but Manville plays her with the volume turned to 10, when everyone else is playing at about a 4. Every emotion is broadcast across her face like it’s a billboard; she seems just this side of mental disability. Before the movie was half over, I found myself long for scenes without her; sadly, there aren’t many, and the movie ends with a long hold on her terribly sad face.
I loved the performances by Broadbent and Sheen in “Another Year,” as well as by many of the other supporting characters. There are sad, confused, and overwhelmed people in this film, who manage to be so with a quiet dignity. And then there’s Manville. She’s a screaming banshee in a field of English heather, and does as much as she can to ruin “Another Year.” She almost succeeds.