The loneliness of the long-suffering singleton

Mike Leigh’s Another Year is a humane look at how the loss of social networks reinforces middle-aged isolation.

Neil Davenport

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Happy-Go-Lucky, Mike Leigh’s 10th film from 2008, was a surprising shift in tone for the now 67-year-old Salford-born director. Rather than bleakly dwelling on life’s waifs, strays and ne’er-do-wells, it featured a group of well-adjusted and attractive young women cheerily getting on with living and working in north London. In many ways, it was the anti-Mike Leigh, Mike Leigh film, but it still polarised opinion, as most of his films tend to do.

Many women found Happy-Go-Lucky‘s lead character, Pauline ‘Poppy’ Cross (Sally Hawkins), teeth-gratingly chirpy and thought she gave an unflattering portrayal of a modern, 30-year-old woman. Men, on other hand, tended to be charmed by her wit and warmth. And, let’s be honest, many guys fell for Hawkins’ watermelon grin and tractor-beam charisma. After the international success of Happy-Go-Lucky (Hawkins received a Golden Globe) and the glowing notices for Mike Leigh’s 2004 film, Vera Drake, anticipations are high ahead of this Friday’s UK premiere of Leigh’s latest offering, Another Year. Although it didn’t win the Palme d’Or, Another Year was still one of the most talked about movies at this year’s Cannes film festival.

Anyone expecting the light (though hardly lightweight) touch of Happy-Go-Lucky could be a tad disappointed. Another Year returns to familiar Leigh territory: gut-wrenching sorrow, frustrated lives, claustrophobic social tensions and excruciating embarrassments. It’s all highly watchable rather than unbearable thanks to the compassion Leigh generates for his dysfunctional protagonists, as well as the regular flashes of brilliant, caustic wit. In fact, Another Year features some of Leigh’s funniest and most memorable lines since Mean Time or Career Girls.

Set over the course of four seasons, the film follows the lives of a comfortable, professional married couple in their early sixties, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), and their rather unhappy singleton friends, Mary (Lesley Manville) and Ken (Peter Wight). Mary works as an admin assistant to counsellor Gerri and is desperate for a life-changing romance to brighten up her monotonous existence and ease her loneliness. She’s a faintly attractive, fortysomething woman, but her tendency to be overbearing, self-obsessed and booze-soaked means she tends to get the ‘nice to have met you’ brush off after dates. The frequent rejections only lead her to be even more demonstrative in social situations, which, in turn, only leads to more social embarrassments and corrosive self-loathing once the hangover has cleared.

Leigh is clearly showing us a bleaker picture of singleton society and points out the particular difficulties for women ‘of a certain age’. Mary certainly attracts much older men, but apparently they lose interest when her real age is revealed. Sitting in a plush, trendy bar with her hair done up and an extra coat of lip gloss for confidence, Mary eyes up a distinguished looking fiftysomething gent. Any hope is dashed when he is met and passionately kissed by a beautiful woman half his age. It’s a crestfallen moment worthy of a scene from a Patrick Hamilton novel. Elsewhere, Mary’s failed attempts at seducing Tom and Gerri’s 30-year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman) are comical, while her teeth-flashing bitterness towards Joe’s new girlfriend is unbearable.

Tom’s life-long pal Ken, though, is an altogether lost soul. He makes half-hearted attempts to chat up Mary at Tom and Gerri’s summer barbeque, but isn’t quite deluded enough to think he stands a chance. A heavy drinker, smoker and eater, any traces of handsomeness have been erased along with his personal hygiene or any pretence to a decent wardrobe. He bemoans how rubbish pubs have become in his native Hull, all redesigned to ‘exclude old people like me’, and his social networks have closed down one-by-one through friends emigrating or dying. He carries on working for the local council when he could easily retire because he doesn’t have anything else to occupy his time. Isolation and loneliness have often hit people late in life, but Leigh is showing how the collapse of any public life in the provinces is making this unfortunate situation more likely for more people.

It would be easy, and wrong, to see Tom and Gerri – yes, this awful gag is deliberately played upon from time to time – as a smug couple lording it over their unfortunate friends. Yes, they’re allotment-loving greens who fret about climate change, but in lots of ways they don’t conform to an easy liberal-leftie stereotype. The couple, like the hapless Ken, benefited from grammar schools and universities worth their name in the late Sixties. They’re the first of their respective families to go to university and, as we see from Tom’s wider family in Hull, are from unremarkable backgrounds. As Gerri remarks to Tom early in the film, ‘we’re lucky really’, and it’s this grounded awareness that informs their compassion, patience and loyalty to their sometimes-trying friends.

So would Mary be happier if she found a decent man? It would no doubt help, but it seems her real discontent is rooted in doing a badly paid and unfulfilling clerical job, unable to afford a decent flat or go on holiday. In a fantastic dig at environmentalists, Mary rationalises her poverty through the prism of green thinking: ‘I’m the most environmentally friendly person here’, she says. ‘I don’t drive, I don’t consume much, I live in a small flat and I don’t fly abroad.’

In an earlier scene, too, one of Gerri’s patients, Janet (Imelda Staunton), responds to the question ‘what would make you happy?’ with ‘how about a new life?’ and rightly can’t see what a weekly therapy session would do to change that. Nonetheless, Janet is deprived of sleeping pills from a medical doctor until she agrees to weekly psychological probings by Gerri. Gerri’s psychobabble also works against her better instincts, as when she falls out with Mary and, rather than work through the squabble as long-time friends should, she coldly advises Mary to ‘seek independent professional advice’. Leigh’s disdain for the ‘happiness agenda’, quack therapy and environmentalism is a sly delight throughout the film.

At the question-and-answer session that followed the preview screening I attended, Leigh unashamedly said how much he enjoys film-making at the moment. Certainly, his output over the past decade has seen him grow as a director with each new release. Another Year is a beautifully shot, deeply humane and – even by Leigh’s standards – minutely observed portrait of the dynamics of life-long friendships. What gives this snapshot an absorbing quality are the unexplained back stories and unspoken hostilities that are palpable amongst the main protagonists. It’s a film that keeps you searching for answers long after the credits have rolled.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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