Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are Tom and Gerri, a couple deliriously in love. )
Desperation and fulfillment, anxiety and warmth, pain and contentment — all come together in the darkly splendid "Another Year." British writer-director Mike Leigh ("Vera Drake," "Happy-Go-Lucky") has been a major influence on England's filmmakers with his eye for realism and the small dramas that make up the big drama of life. This time out he's juxtaposed domestic bliss and train-wreck neediness in a film that, while not terribly subtle, still manages to carry dramatic heft.
The domestic bliss would belong to Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). He's a geological engineer, she's a counselor. They've apparently been married forever, they have a grown son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), and they like working in their vegetable garden.
In one shot we see the couple sipping tea in a small shelter as rain pours down on the garden. They seem absolutely in love, with each other and life.
Tom and Gerri (a joke about cartoon characters is inevitable) also love to cook and have friends over. One such friend is Mary (Lesley Manville), a secretary who works with Gerri.
Mary drinks far too much wine, she babbles on nervously about inconsequential things, and she's obviously painfully lonely. She wants to connect with someone, but she also wants that person to be something special.
She runs into a male counterpart — an overweight, sad sack drunk named Ken (Peter Wight) — at a cookout at Tom and Gerri's, and rejects his clumsy overtures despite (and probably because of) their mutual problems. Instead, she sets her bleary sights on the much younger Joe, who uneasily humors his mother's friend.
Eventually, Joe brings home an ebullient girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez), and Mary's sour world turns even more so.
All of this amounts to nothing much at the same time it reflects on the mundane nature of isolation, aspiration and, yes, love. Leigh has no use for super-hero moments or operatic crescendos; he's far more interested in steering his characters through the barbs and beauties of everyday life.
True, breaking the film into seasons and dawdling in the garden during each of them — how much gardening actually goes on in winter? — is a bit obvious. And most couples will count themselves lucky if they can recognize some of their own relationship in the idyllic bond between Tom and Gerri.
But the strength of that bond, the warm ease of it, is absolutely necessary as a counter-balance to Mary. In the beginning, Manville's grasp on a wine glass can seem too panicked; but as the film goes on, her fluttery-scared mannerisms and sheer terror at the waking day sell themselves completely. Yes, the woman really is that bad off.
Leigh is well-known for depending on improvised dialogue from his acting ensemble, which just makes said ensemble all the more impressive here, from Manville's scattered babbling to Sheen's quiet strength and Broadbent's sunny optimism.
"Another Year" is just that — time passing through lives, relationships shifting, some spirits flailing while others rest happily within one another. It's touching, sad, funny, maddening, embarrassing and mean all at once. Kind of like life.
Rated PG-13: For some language
Running time: 129 minutes