Saturday, October 1, 2011


Tom: I don't think I really enjoyed history at school.
Gerri: Didn't you?
Tom: Maybe I did. It's just that the older you get, the more relevant it seems.
Gerri: Hmmm.
Tom: To state the bleeding obvious.
Gerri: We'll be part of history soon. (giggles)
Tom: Exactly.

Another Year is a simple, understated film. But there is something about it that makes it glow. The marriage between the two main characters of the film gives the story a strength around which everything else revolves. Tom and Gerri are an older couple happily married with one son. They have created a home that is a shelter and refuge for whoever drops by for a visit. In fact, the marriage portrayed in this film is just the sort of marriage that I want someday. Marriage, for various reasons, is looked down upon in our culture. Over 40% of all American marriages are currently ending in divorce. So it does the heart good to see the joy that a happily married couple can have portrayed so fully in one little film.

Honestly, nothing much happens during the two hour run length. You simply get to watch as this couple is visited by friends and family, all of whom in their own ways, have their own problems and weaknesses. Maybe that's putting it lightly. Some of their friends are complete and absolute messes. Life hasn't been kind to them, but they haven't been doing anything to help themselves either. They visit the two protagonists of the film because they find love and comfort there. It's peaceful to be around these two, and they provide strength to whoever shadows their doorstep. Just being in their company results in a place of warmth, patience, hospitality, comfort, and food and drink for all. Their friends inconvenience them and bother them. Their simple pleasures are regularly interrupted. But their very existence provides a rock in the storm.

Tom Hepple (Jim Broadbent - Professor Kirke in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Professor Slughorn in Harry Potter) is a bright-eyed, cheerful, soft-spoken man who occasionally surprises those around him by suddenly taking a moral stance on something with a considerable amount of bluntness and force. Gerri Hepple (Ruth Sheen - a favorite actress of director Mike Leigh) is a woman who works in counseling and psychology, and because of her love for people and her understanding of them, doesn't really do anything different when she's off the job. Because they give each other joy, they are both stronger and able to be a light and a help for others.

Mary: Everybody needs somebody to talk to, don't they?
Gerri: Yes, they do.

Because Tom and Gerri love each other, they take simple pleasure in merely being in each other's company. They enjoy working in their vegetable garden together year round (the result of which they use to supply their table), just reading in bed together, or just sitting under a shelter and watching it rain. The joy they take in each other is evident to their friends and that is what makes them such a comfort to be around. It's as if they attract hurting friends with problems in need of solving simply by their very goodness.

Actress Lesley Manville turns out one of the films best performances as Gerri's friend from work, Mary. Mary is the friend we get to see the most, partly because she is the friend who takes the most liberties with her friendship with the Hepples. The awkward situations she creates for them are both humorous and pathetic. But you know people like Mary. Anything good that happens to her always ends in a disaster. She is a lost soul. She has been hurt by a divorce and by other men in her life, and yet her neediness just creates more of the same. She's man-crazy, and she allows the way men treat her to form who she is as a person. Because she even fantasizes about a romance with the Hepples' son, Joe (who she knew as an adult while he was a mere 10-year-old), she regularly forces her desperation on the Hepple family.

Mary: Well, what can you do Tom? You can't walk around with a label saying 'Don't fall in love with me. I'm married.' Can you?
Tom: Some people wear a ring.
Mary: He didn't. Well he wasn't a bad person. He loved me.
Tom: Sounds to me like he was a duplicitous shit.

And yet, they don't stop loving her. In spite of all her demands on them, and in spite of their annoyances, they merely accept her as a person who they hope can grow into the woman they believe she's capable of. They grace her with an almost infinite amount of patience. They welcome her to their dinner table even when she really is intruding. One is reminded of how Christ taught us to love the poor and needy in the Gospels. Some people are materially poor, and others are poor in spirit. Tom and Gerri give aid to those of their friends who are poor in spirit.

Peter Wight plays another friend, Ken, who is also poor in spirit. His lifestyle of eating, drinking and being merry has taken its toll on his soul. He mirrors Mary's cliches about living life while you can and avoiding thinking about tomorrow. An old friend of Tom's, Ken occasionally warms himself in the glow of the Hepple household and always dreads leaving them to go back to his own pitiful life. Tom reaches out to him and encourages him to change both the way he lives and the way he thinks. When Tom offers the companionship and comradrie of a walk across the country focused on visiting old local pubs to him, Ken's misery is so entrenched that he can't even accept the offer. He's so focused on himself and his own sadness that he can't bring himself to take joy in things outside himself. In fact, as screwed up as Mary is, she's somehow still out of Ken's class. His attempts to flirt with her are destined to end in brutal failure. Like Mary, he also drinks too much. And smokes too much, eats too much, pities himself too much, etc. But this doesn't mean Tom is going to stop being his friend.

One of the questions that Tom and Gerri have to wrestle with in this story is how, exactly, they can help their lost friends. They discuss their disappointment with each other when their hospitality and encouragement doesn't seem to help. Gerri even questions whether she should be guilty for being so happy while her friend isn't. Their friendship with others can only accomplish so much, so why does it sometimes seem like it's not accomplishing anything at all.

And here is where we reach something I don't understand about the film. While Another Year has received overwhelmingly positive reviews, there are a large number of reviewers who don't like Tom and Gerri. Something about their joy and goodness bothers film critics. But why?

In The Village Voice, Karina Longworth opines -

"The further the characters are etched, the harder it becomes to figure out with whom Leigh intends us to identify: Tom and Gerri’s horrible house guests, who you can’t help but pity for their clueless concern for only themselves? Or self-appointed 'Saint Gerri' and her even more self-righteous partner, whose care for friends and family is never anything less than condescending?"

Tony Macklin, apparently in between chugs of Pabst Blue Ribbon, complains -

"Several reviewers have said they'd like to meet and stay with the people in the movie. I'm not sure why. If you identify with these characters, you probably are not going to this movie. The characters probably don't go to the movies. If I were at a party with these characters, I'd pay my respects, and get the hell out of there."

Kent Turner takes a deep drag from his water vapor cigarette, and sneers in Film-Forward -

"Luckily, Mary’s also soused on an afternoon bender, otherwise she may not have overlooked Gerri’s condescending recommendation that she 'could try a culture holiday' for a change of pace ... [A] compelling question hovers throughout: why are the eerily calm Gerri and Tom enablers, or are they just sounding boards for Mary? While she holds the film hostage, the couple commits a thoughtless act at a funeral in such a quiet and confident way that their selfishness and arrogance have gone under the radar for many critics."

In The Hollywood Reporter, Ray Bennett speculates on the actors bringing "a sly touch of smugness to the apparently contented but quite boring central couple" and wonders if Leigh secretly "intends them to be not quite as nice as they appear." Alistair Harkness, after spending too much time scowling upon the Scottish heath, just doesn't like people who smile. He moans that "... there's obviously no scope for drama in simply observing the lives of such sickeningly happy people" and grumbles that the Hepples' friends are "seen through the prism of Tom and Gerri's conceited point of view."

Simon Foster apparently decided that this film dangerously portrays the bourgeois middle class in too positive of a light. Taking a breather from his Friedrich Engels reading, he pounds out in SBS Film how he doesn't like the film's married couple for being "secure in their well-educated, professional lives" and makes fun of director, Mike Leigh, when "[s]ome early concerns about the single lifestyle by their upwardly-mobile son ... are dispersed when he brings home Katie (Karina Fernandez), an equally vibrant, well-educated, upwardly-mobile member of their class strata ..." Since it bothers him that much, at least Foster can rest secure in the knowledge that his ability to critique film is the opposite of upwardly-mobile. Critic Mike Scott only offers struggling friends tea or water. He agrees with Mr. Turner when he scoffs in the Times-Picayune - "Good thing Tom and Gerri are the lovely enablers that they are. They pat Mary and company on the back, pour them a drink, wipe their noses, then go on with their lives. And then ... nothing."

Tom: It's the young person's prerogative to be noisy.

I have yet to ever understand taking offense to the well educated or the successful for being condescending. There is nothing smug or self-satisfied about Tom and Gerri in this film. They're just happy. Not only are they happy, but they interrupt their happiness to help others. Is offering friendship, drinks and home-cooked dinner to lost souls or struggling friends condescending? No.

If that's being condescended to, then I wish more people would do that to me. Having attended law school in the Washington D.C. area, I've seen my fair share of pretentious snobbery. But here's the thing, snobs are not happy people. They care too much about class and social-strata to enjoy themselves. It's a misery of never-ending climbing up to different class levels and stressing over having been knocked down or excluded from a higher level. A smug, self-obsessed person condescends to others as an outward sign of their own class value. Snobby people care about things that don't matter, and therefore live in a fake peer-pressure created world.

I refuse to grant that Tom and Gerri are condescending just because of glances they share with each other when some friend is being particularly troublesome. Helping troubled friends is sometimes awkward. Sometimes it involves just listening to them. And more often than not, if the person you're attempting to help does not resolve to change, then no amount of hospitality, friendship, food, drink, money, conversation or advice you give them will change them. I don't see how anyone could say that this couple doesn't care whether their friends change. Their most troubled conversations are precisely on the hope they have for their friends to do better.

And this is where things turn towards a fundamental truth taught by Christianity. No matter how sick, ugly, lost or depraved a person was, Christ accepted him or her and upbraided his disciples to do the same. There was nothing a person has to do, according to Christianity, to get God's love. God created every person for a purpose - and that purpose is good. With the image of God stamped upon every human being, however tarnished it may have become with the Fall, there is still potential for strength, nobility and goodness there if that person chooses to allow it. It is different for every person how exactly it will be brought out. But the potential is there.

Christ looked at every person and loved them enough to see the potential something that they were created for. This is a truth author C.S. Lewis understood. Even in his Chronicles of Narnia series, it didn't matter how good or bad a human character was acting. To Aslan, every boy or girl, man or woman was a "Son of Adam" or a "Daughter of Eve" and retained all the possibilities for royalty and greatness they were created to possess. This makes every single person interesting. Every person has the potential for a dramatic story of loss and redemption, fall and triumph, failure and heroism. But this is a view, as C.S. Lewis explained, different from the view of a good-natured, indifferent, Santa Claus-like God in the sky. A God who loves man is different from a God who is merely kind to man. The former will allow (and sometimes even cause) pain and suffering to change the character of the created being, the latter simply wants us to be happy, no matter what state we happen to be in. Lewis writes -

"Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness ... There is kindness in Love: but Love and kindness are not coterminous, and when kindness (in the sense given above) is separated from the other elements of Love, it involves a certain fundamental indifference to its object, and even something like contempt of it. Kindness consents very readily to the removal of its object ... Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering ...

"It is for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms: with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes."

Another Year is not what most would regard as a "Christian" film. Other than some words said rather hurriedly at a funeral, there is nothing explicitly Christian in the film. But some films teach Christian truths more successfully than more explicit films capable of being labeled "Christian." In this film we see two people who are trying to love other fairly unlovable people. They could be merely kind without caring whether their friends change. But instead they are investing their valuable and fleeting time and effort into these people. Being friends to characters like Mary may sometimes be annoying, but you can't judge them by when they are annoyed. Judge them instead by what they actually do. Tom and Gerri regularly subject their family to intrusion, awkwardness, and the occasional ridiculous situation - all to be loving to their friends.

Critics seem to be upset that the film does not have an easy ending. Everything isn't all nice, neat and resolved at the end (with a pretty bow on top). All the pain and suffering is wiped clean. It is absolutely evident, particularly after that last long lingering shot, that trouble and turmoil are very much still there. The Hepples have not fixed everything. But what are they doing? They are allowing a very private and intimate part of their family life to be intruded upon. What are they accomplishing?

Part of their gradual influence is seen in the character of Tom's brother, Ronnie. After just losing his wife (and suffering through a rough life with a son who apparently hates his guts), Ronnie (played by David Bradley, probably known to everyone else as the sour-faced caretaker Filch from the Harry Potter series) is virtually inarticulate with grief. But at the end of the film, he is confronted with a sudden opportunity to show some human empathy with Mary. And then, after the entire time, it is Mary who somehow miraculously (with a little story about a bottle of champagne) is able to make Ronnie smile for the first time in the film. (I didn't even know that the actor Bradley was capable of smiling.) And it is only the home that the Hepples have created that makes this small little triumph possible. Successes like this are hard won.

Rob Thomas writes -

"The 50-something couple Tom and Gerri at the center of Mike Leigh’s film 'Another Year' are by any measure happily married, facing the onset of old age together with compassion and good humor. But you get the sense that they didn’t just luck into lifelong bliss, but have toiled away for years at building full and satisfying lives for themselves. Throughout the film, Leigh includes interludes where we see Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) working in their community garden, nurturing the good things, pruning away the destructive ones. It’s a telling metaphor for a life well-lived."

By the time you reach the last scene of Another Year, you see that very real pain and despair still exists. But the two characters who are struggling are in a very special place. They may not quite realize it yet (although you start to see just a little flicker of recognition in the eyes of Ronnie), but they are being given something they haven't really done anything to deserve. This is what makes Another Year special.

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