01/03/2011 08:54 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Movie Review: Mike Leigh's Another Year

Nothing happens in Mike Leigh's Another Year -- and everything happens.

A miracle of virtuoso acting and understated filmmaking, Leigh's film is a year-in-the-life exploration of a group of friends, in which Leigh tackles all of the big issues: life, death, love, marriage, unhappiness, purpose. Yet he does it without anyone giving a speech, without anyone even truly addressing the subjects at hand.

Rather, it's all in their behavior and interaction, the way they get on with their lives -- or don't. His actors find the underlying psychology of the characters, even as they enact the mundane moments of their daily lives.

The film starts with a close-up on an exceptionally unhappy face: an older woman named Janet, played by Imelda Staunton in a classic bit of throwaway. She's talking to an unseen doctor about her inability to sleep, though talking is probably a misnomer. Rather, the doctor asks her questions and she provides grudging answers. She can't sleep; she wants sleeping pills. And she has no interest in discussing what it is in her life that might be at the root of the sleeplessness.

In fact, Janet only appears once more in the film, but her closed-off mask of distinct distemper is like a template for most of the characters in the film. We meet several who are obviously miserable but, being British, wouldn't say anything about it if it killed them.

The film shifts to an geologist named Tom (Jim Broadbent), then to a psychotherapist named Gerri (Ruth Sheen), who is also trying to draw some self-revelation out of the obdurate Janet. Gerri then makes a date to have a drink with an officemate named Mary (Lesley Manville), eventually inviting her to dinner.

Gerri and Tom are a long-time married couple, with a grown son named Joe (Oliver Maltman). Mary shows up for the dinner, bearing a bottle of wine, affecting good cheer. But even as she drinks most of the wine herself, she begins to reveal her essential unhappiness: that she has not married, has no children, has no prospects. Eventually, she gets so drunk that Tom and Gerri invite her to spend the night.

The section is dubbed spring and also features Tom and Gerri working their "allotment," a community garden plot where they raise their own vegetables. (The allotment, in fact, is a consistent feature of each section of the film.) They also have a visit from their unmarried son Joe, who seems a good sort, a bit tired of his parents worrying about the fact that he's still single and his friends are all getting married.

The summer section brings another unhappy friend calling: Ken (Peter Wight), a hard-drinking divorced school chum of Tom's, who comes for a weekend of barbecues, golf and, well, his own misery.

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