In each scene of Another Year, the camera finds each character’s most subtle reactions. That the faces are older than the usual youthful Hollywood fare deepens director Mike Leigh’s exploration of how much more expressive those timeworn surfaces can be by virtue of restraint. Age, in a large sense, is the process of learning to express more with less. Poetry is not glowing language, but the voice of context coalescing around it; through the cracks between the lines it speaks; a jiggle of the jowl, the color of crooked teeth; the way we clutch a cigarette, how our eyes keep trying to sing a song our wrinkles and slouches unsing—and how these forms agree and disagree with one another—Leigh knows how to let the camera let them speak. Then zooming out one level from scene—sequence—a chain of these scenes—as if the architecture of the story were a camera of cameras; Leigh points it as sharply. In the outermost valences of narrative, electrons are bent to shed light on a nucleus, which we see fresh, bent itself to point at subatomic particles, which are bent to point at interior strings, dark matter, etc. Until we glimpse the inner, churning and mysterious thing which Hopkins named inscape and Merton equated to sanctity. That being said, I understand how some might dismiss the movie as being “only” about one, stationary atom.
Perhaps that metaphor got beyond me; thankfully Shakespeare proved the path to greatness is paved with metaphorical excess. Like a great poet himself, Mike Leigh takes the most seemingly lifeless materials—old people who don’t change; the two main characters remain as boringly virtuous as their friends remain doomed—and by attention to detail, which is a less bombastic synonym for formal virtuosity, we see the life, the change, the seven levels of pride and shame and oceans of delusion and ice-thin epiphanies that flutter through our eyes when we feel our own dreams were broken long ago on the sharp rocks of youth and we try as hard as we can not to know it—not yet—because we’re still alive. Leslie Manville’s portrayal of Mary, a hapless alcoholic speeding past her prime in a spree of pathetic desperation, makes Melissa Leo’s best supporting actress Oscar for The Fighter look like an attendance certificate. Wrapped around Manville’s wiles, Leigh’s wise silence resounds—the boringness of happiness, the sniping judgments of piety, the abyss of self-absorption, the resignation love demands, the arrogance of our spurning of it, the indifference of death, the tragedy of self-awareness that blooms too late, the slightly comic tragedy of self-awareness that blooms at all, beauty’s hatred of that blooming, the gravitational gales familial expectations exert upon the starships of our egos—if not real enough, or too real, Leigh shows it is possible to make art reverent in life’s direction.