Leigh's latest follows Tom Hepple (Jim Broadbent) and his wife Gerri (Ruth Sheen) throughout a year of their life, and their encounters with various friends and family members, most prominently Mary (Lesley Manville) who works with Gerri, as well as their son Joe (Oliver Maltman).
To relate the plot of Another Year is a tricky task, because in many ways nothing unusual really happens. Tom and Gerri's lives are pretty ordinary - he a geologist, she a counsellor, both nearing retirement - and the things that happen to them are just as ordinary. But it's the people who surround them and move in and out of their lives that makes Another Year such compelling viewing. Leigh's handling of what in the hands of many could seem positively humdrum is so skilled and authentic that you can't help but get drawn into the Hepples' world.
Thanks in no small part to Broadbent and Sheen's sublime performances opposite each other, by the end of the film Tom and Gerri feel like old friends. The couple are happy, as in genuinely happy. They love and trust each other, they support each other, and they can communicate to each other with a glance or a word (more than once Gerri reins in Tom's slightly more outspoken side with a carefully intoned utterance of his first name). Together, Broadbent and Sheen create one of the most authentic married couples seen on screen in recent memory.
Tom and Gerri are in many ways the calm eye of a constantly simmering storm around them, as the friends and family orbiting the couple generate much of the drama seen throughout the film. Many of the characters are seen for only one segment of the whole film, such as Tom's old university friend Ken (Peter Wight), a pitiable man refusing to retire and seemingly eating and drinking himself to death, and Ronnie, Tom's brother, played by David Bradley in a understated turn a world away from his role as Filch in the Harry Potter films. In fact, it is often the characters who are only seen briefly who create the greatest impact; Imelda Staunton as a patient of Gerri in the opening scenes encapsulates many of the film's recurring themes - growing old, loneliness and the concept of happiness - in a startlingly blunt performance. Martin Savage, too, as Ronnie's wayward son Carl, immediately generates tenseness, unease and even threat, telling a story that began years before the timeframe of the film in only a handful of scenes.
It is Manville, as the alternately pathetic and sympathetic Mary, whose performance is likely to stick in your mind long after the gentle acoustic guitar music plays over the film's closing credits. Beginning the film as almost a caricature of middle-aged spinsterhood - drinking too much and retelling the same tired jokes her friends obligingly smile through - Mary becomes Tom and Gerri's most constant opposite. As her actions become increasingly ill-advised and symptomatic of somebody not wholly in balance, Manville's performance firmly steers Mary away from what many may have seen as a one-dimensional misogynistic diatribe of a character from Leigh, creating a complex and human creature both seriously flawed and impossible to hate.
In fact, this may be Leigh's greatest achievement in Another Year. Tom and Gerri at the centre may be the only stable characters here; but despite this, Leigh allows us to like everyone we meet throughout. Nobody is inherently bad, just suffering from a lack of happiness in some way (even Carl, whose actions are almost entirely reprehensible, comes across as troubled rather than evil). Whilst we might not agree with everything the characters do, they are always relatable and, Leigh suggests, both capable and worthy of redemption.
There are occasions when Another Year slows down a little too much for its own good, and there are segments which possibly go on a little longer than they should. But the film is largely a great success for Leigh and his immensely strong cast. The imbibing of wine is a common activity throughout the film, and it may be that Another Year is a film that, like a fine wine, will get even better with age. Or maybe it is I, a mere twentysomething, that needs to continue aging before all aspects of the film truly hit home to me. Either way, Leigh has created a compelling character-driven drama of both quality and heart.