Nothing really happens in Mike Leigh's latest, ''Another Year'' - nothing extraordinary, at least. As the title suggests, the film follows the usual comings and goings, ups and downs that transpire over four seasons among a longtime happily married couple, their family and friends.
And yet everything is fully realized and superbly crafted; the sense of intimacy Leigh creates as writer and director is never broken, for better and for worse. ''Another Year'' feels as organic and authentic as the vegetables its lead characters, husband and wife Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), grow in a community garden. It reveals the players' connections effortlessly, and with the naturalistic dialogue that is among the filmmaker's trademarks. But it can also be unrelentingly bleak, which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one who's a fan of Leigh's work.
The first image we see is one of harsh realism: the unadorned face of Imelda Staunton, the Oscar-nominated star of Leigh's ''Vera Drake,'' pinched in a taut visage of depression, framed in a nondescript helmet of mousey brown hair. She's come to a doctor to find out what's wrong with her; she ends up being sent to Gerri, a counselor, who asks her to rate her happiness on a scale of one to 10. ''One,'' she responds in barely audible fashion. Never mind that the word ''spring'' has preceded these moments; there's no hope for renewal here.
Lesley Manville and Jim Broadbent star in this latest look at modern life from English director Mike Leigh.
Sony Classics photo via AP
Still, the character at the center of ''Another Year,'' Lesley Manville's Mary, is a high-energy bundle of neediness and desire, constantly striving to connect, desperate for human contact. Manville, one of many Leigh regulars in the cast, plays her as well-intentioned but self-conscious, ingratiating but jittery, sweet but passive-aggressive and clearly so, so lonely. Whether she's complaining about the car she just bought or babbling about the inane plans she'll never carry out, she feels wholly real. And while she spends a lot of time at Tom and Gerri's comfortable home, you wouldn't want to spend a whole lot of time with her.
But Mary isn't all that different from Poppy, the eternally sunny character at the center of Leigh's last film, ''Happy-Go-Lucky.'' Both are striving way too hard to achieve happiness (though Sally Hawkins' Poppy actually succeeds) and a little bit of both goes a long way.
''You know me,'' Mary says cheerfully to Gerri, her longtime friend and co-worker, over a bottle of white wine at the pub. ''I'm very much a glass-half-full kind of girl.'' But you get the sense that she's trying to convince herself of that, too. Even as she lists all the things that are going right in her life - nice apartment, good job, her health - a jumpy, uncertain smile crosses her face. And then she takes another sip. It's an annoying character, but Manville - a theater veteran whose previous films with Leigh include ''Topsy-Turvy'' and ''All or Nothing'' - is so good, she makes you feel sorry for her.
"Another Year" stars Lesley Manville, Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen and Imelda Staunton. Mike Leigh directs. Rated PG-13 for some language, its running time is 2:09. It opens Friday at Kukui Mall 4.
While Mary gets drunk and weepy at Tom and Gerri's house in the spring, Tom's corpulent childhood friend Ken (Peter Wight) comes by and gets drunk and weepy in the summer. Both are single, but Mary rudely rebuffs Ken's romantic advances when their paths cross. Watching their interaction is cringe-inducing enough; what's worse is the shameless way Mary flirts with Tom and Gerri's 30-year-old son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), who's also single, and young enough to be her own son. (They actually refer to her as his aunt, much to her dismay.)
Autumn brings the rare source of joy to ''Another Year'': Joe's new girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez). She couldn't be friendlier or more upbeat, and she maintains that grace even in the face of Mary's unabashed jealousy and rudeness. Tom and Gerri, who've magically managed to carve out decades of contentment, are clearly the role models here, so they're enormously relieved that their son has found someone with whom to start his own life.
You could look at them as smug marrieds - and Broadbent and Sheen are unrelentingly adorable together - but challenging events that pass in winter also allow them and the others in their circle to reveal their strength. Ultimately, Leigh is sympathetic to them all, albeit in his own way.