Mike Leigh didn't get to be the movie world's leading humanist by dramatizing the hubbub over the king of England's speech impediment. The lives and opinions of the royal family's favorite musical comedy providers would be more to Leigh's taste, à la Topsy-Turvy. Or perhaps the problems of someone much lower down, like a groundskeeper at Balmoral Castle.
In fact, outside of Topsy-Turvy's decorous portrait of Victorian tunesmiths Gilbert & Sullivan, Leigh hasn't dabbled in Coffee Table Films. There's a definite lack of fancy dress, stately homes, and ostentatious momentousness in his work. Schoolteachers, plumbers, morticians, soldiers, secretaries, clandestine abortionists, and the unemployed are far more likely to be the subjects of a Leigh film than members of the upper crust. The middle and working classes are the field in which the Northern-English-native filmmaker tends his crops — a place where thoughtful miniatures mean more than the most grandiose landscapes.
Another Year fits into his filmography alongside High Hopes and Career Girls, as a quiet, carefully observed character study about the sort of people audiences might not ordinarily find interesting — except that if we give writer-director Leigh a chance we'll be thinking about them for weeks afterward, not so much because of what they say but because of what they reveal themselves to be.
Gerri (Ruth Sheen) and Tom (Jim Broadbent) are a sixtyish wife and husband who cook and carry potting soil and finish the other's thoughts, all in the most natural, unforced way possible. They're at the stage in life, and with each other, in which they're content to occasionally relax and watch the rest of the world go by, with a wry comment or two. Domesticity defined, but with a certain literary/artistic/worldly tilt.
Tom and Gerri (they've heard all the cat-and-mouse jokes), a geologist and medical counselor respectively, routinely entertain friends at their London-area home. Tom's longtime pal and frequent guest Ken (Peter Wright), an overweight, defeated, middle-age bachelor, is nevertheless on the prowl for love. So is Gerri's workmate Mary (Lesley Manville), whose loneliness takes the form of gregariousness when she's in her cups, which is often. Mary considers Ken a hapless fool. But she gets an odd kick out of cornering T&G's thirtysomething unmarried son, Joe (Oliver Maltman) — schmoozing that edges into boozy flirtation. All that flies out the window, however, when Joe shows up with his girlfriend Katie (Katrina Fernandez), a chatty, cheerful soul whose presence upsets the jealous Mary. So we've got a simmering stew of emotions and a pair of wise old cooks to stir it.
Leigh stock company regular Manville (Vera Drake, All or Nothing, Topsy-Turvy, Secrets and Lies) threatens to run away with the film as the needy, self-pitying, yet eminently lovable Mary. As "devised" by Leigh's improvisational method of cast preparation, Mary gets the best scenes, if not necessarily the best lines, and Manville, a thrilling actor with an arsenal of personae inside, sets up Mary as the archetypal unfulfilled urbanite of a certain age. Perhaps the finest "supporting actress" job of 2010.
But then Leigh always manages to match his scenarios with the best character acting in the UK. From Alison Steadman, Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Timothy Spall, Jane Horrocks, Alfred Molina, and the late Katrin Cartlidge to David Thewlis, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Philip Davis, Stephen Rae, Andy Serkis, and Brenda Blethyn, Leigh casts his forays into ordinary life with extraordinary personalities. Cases in point: Leigh veterans Broadbent and Sheen, the warm, firm center of Another Year. By the time the writer-director blends in the melancholy subplot of Tom's brother Ronnie (David Bradley) and Ronnie's unhinged nephew Carl (Martin Savage), the actor's picnic is bursting, an embarrassment of talent.
The filmmaker holds so many aces he can afford to tease us with his opening scene. We think we're going to follow along with the sad woman (Imelda Staunton) we see confessing to Gerri, but no. A Leigh slice of life can handle any number of scene-stealers. It's his gift to be able to beguile us with beautifully etched characters, demonstrate imperishable truths, and then usher us back out into the chilly night with our heads spinning. Another Year, which plays out over the course of four seasons, might seem at first to be a meditation on old age, but its lingering impression is one of reassurance that we're all more or less in the same boat.
Sylvain Chomet's animated drama The Illusionist seems to be attracting a few critical sneers. Most of the complaints take issue with Chomet for appropriating — some might say dumbing down — the style and tone of France's legendary comic auteur Jacques Tati in order to tell the virtually dialogue-free story of an aging, down-at-the-heels traveling magician who more or less adopts a meek teenage girl in an attempt to bring some "magic" into her life.
Guardians of the Tati shrine should lighten up a bit. Chomet, maker of the imaginative The Triplets of Belleville, is only paying tribute to the whimsical creator of Jour de fête and Play Time — not stealing his legacy. The Illusionist is Chomet's adaptation of an unproduced original screenplay by Tati, evidently intended as a memento of a father's love for his daughter. Chomet draws the illusionist to resemble Tati and borrows the master's sight gags and pantomime, but so what? Other reviewers have kvetched about Chomet's abuse of sentimentality and nostalgia. The slender story, essentially a fable about the passing of youth and the impossibility of holding on to loved ones, demands those ingredients the way a horror film requires blood. Let it be.
Chomet's artwork, and especially his use of sound, dials down the frantic urgency of Triplets, and the Scottish setting suits the wistful tale of two people who connect across a language and age divide. Time moves on but some things remain the same. For Tati and Chomet, the feelings are mutual.
Don't miss Suspicion: The Films of Claude Chabrol & Alfred Hitchcock, a fourteen-film mini-retrospective of both directors' work, opening Thursday at the Pacific Film Archive. Chabrol, who died last September, was once thought of as nothing more than an admirer of the Master of Suspense, but time has proved him to be Hitch's equal.