Another Year

Lately I find myself becoming more and more contrarian when it comes to popular film-critical taste and my own taste. Specifically I have grown quite weary of only the big and flashy being recognized as greatness. Film costuming is only recognized when it’s a period piece or something contemporary yet theatrical like a musical. Yet I appreciate the more commonplace but incredibly effective use of dress in contemporary films filled with everyday people.

But what has really gotten my goat this year is the praise heaped on BIG ACTING with a capital-A performances while smaller, internal, quiet performances are overlooked. The most egregious of these is the over-the-top praise for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo’s perforamnces in The Fighter while Mark Wahlberg is dismissed for deftly playing a character who clearly has spent his entire life living in the shadow of his larger than life relatives. But not all acting has to have the “can’t look away” quality that Leo and Bale epitomize. Acting small can be just as breath-taking.

Which brings me to Mike Leigh’s Another Year – another of his small slice of life dramadies about England’s lower-middle class. The film’s four acts revolve around Tom and Geri, a well adjusted, jovial and compassionate 60-something couple and their largely down-on-their-luck (not to mention alcoholic and personality disordered) friends and (more functional) family. Lesley Manville, one of Leigh’s regulars, is getting serious praise for her performance as the lonely and histrionic chatterbox co-worker Mary. And rightly so – Manville fills the character up completely and remains well rounded and sympathetic in spite of the pathos that Leigh falls into at times. But I was unmoved by her performance. Rather I was moved to tears by the quiet performance of David Bradley (who many apparently know from the Harry Potter movies) as the brother Carl who has just lost his wife. The stoically furrowed brow and the slight glint of moisture in his eye convey something more piercing and a sense of peronal history and sadness than all of Manville’s facial tics and telegraphed looks ever could. (Mary eventually became a character whom, in spite of the fact that she was supposed to be a flawed but ultimately sympathetic figure, ended up becoming truly annoying and despicable such that I wish she’d just disappreared before the winter arrived – Leigh should have known when to say when with Mary’s screen time).
Small and quiet performances rarely get the big accolades but, when they are displayed with such skill as David Bradley’s in this film they get my appreciation all the more. He has the inside track for my favorite performance of 2011 (this movie didn’t come out in my area until just now so it’s 2011 in my mind).

Anyhow, Another Year is a perfectly fine film. A bit of a disappointment though. Leigh has a bad tendency to go head-first into the melodrama and heaviness near the end of some of his movies. The last few moments of Another Year reminded me (in a bad way) of the last 10 minutes of Vera Drake – a pathos-heavy martyrdom that had me almost wishing they’d just nail her up on the cross already. What was wonderful about Leigh’s most previous film Happy, Go Lucky was it’s perfect balance of sadness, lightness and profundity – a testament to Sally Hawkins’ and Eddie Marsan’s restraint as compared to Manville’s balls-to-the-wall emotionalism.

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