It should be indisputable by now that Mike Leigh is not only Britain’s greatest director (and one who hasn’t taken the bait to “go Hollywood”), but also one of the finest film artists ever. His vast and consistently fine filmography continues to grow and expand, with his uniquely personal touch, in a medium often lacking steady artistic voices. This year’s Leigh model, Another Year, is a poem about mortality and the fragility of family and friends—another dazzling but typically understated jewel in his oeuvre, following up especially strong recent films Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky.
Leigh is a master filmmaker, pure and simple, whose work has largely dealt with ordinary folks in extraordinary ways. This time around, we follow a year in the lives of a solid, anchoring older couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), whose solidity contrasts the sad emotional rudderlessness of the wife’s coworker Mary (the astonishingly good Lesley Manville), and a glum zombie-brother widower (David Bradley), who spices up the narrative in the final, left-hook segment of the tale.
Leigh’s is not the “kitchen sink” approach to naturalistic cinema, though, and his deceptively loose-feeling style, bolstered by deeper structure than immediately imagined, is fully realized here. He works hard to make the end result look easy. Seemingly improvisational at times—the better to draw us into his characters’ lives—his films, and this one in particular, are boldly and imaginatively paced and structured, broken, Ozu-style, into four seasons, four chapters, leading up to a calmly staggering finale. He benefits from the characteristically sensitive work of regular allies of sight and sound, cinematographer Dick Pope and composer Gary Yershon, who supplies chamber music snippets for Leigh’s folksy/arty chamber dramas. Why not?
On a local note, the amazing Manville—deliverer of one of the most heartbreaking performances in the past year—will show up at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) next Friday to be honored with a Virtuosos Award at the Lobero Theatre. Virtuoso, indeed. Now if only Leigh would return to SBIFF, as well. He was in town with High Hopes in 1988, and has produced a lemon-free filmography ever since.