Ten thousand generations were born, struggled with nature, made love, waged war, bore young, feared death, gazed into the grief-guitared eyes of their survivors, and then died—before we even discovered language. Ten thousand generations of joy, terror, and bewilderment—multiplied laterally across all the people in each generation— mothers, fathers, hunters, explorers, gatherers, thieves, weaklings, strangers—all before anyone we even know of was born. Sometimes this perspective buoys me when angst and longing have wound a ball of anxiety so tight behind my eyes I feel I might explode against the nearest brick wall. Even the comfort literature offers, like a pillow of all-time’s futile similarity to the present, is dwarfed by it. Those lost consciousnesses from which we all came, like an extra layer of past wrapped loosely around the already unfathomable body of known history, wrapped tighter around the unfathomable body of the present, form a kind of dim, halotic corona. An orb bereft of detail and of a scale too epic to picture. But still I like to think about it, when I want to tint the possibly tedious talk of say, reviewing another movie, with mystery. I picture this idea like the belt of golden letters scrolling backward at the beginning of Star Wars, before the movie of the review begins. Barney’s Version is about a man’s life. Not a particularly likeable man, and not a particularly interesting life, but its particularity is in its totality of scope. Had it been shot and scripted by Mike Leigh instead of Richard J. Lewis and Michael Konyves, B’s V might have been able to overcome uneven pacing, some forced plotting, and visual style that sags as much as it blossoms. But I still wept walking out of the theater, and on the walk home as the clock on my cellphone struck midnight, pulling close the collar of my jacket, zipping up because the temperature had plummeted ten degrees during the 132-minute runtime, watching the shadows cast by the streetlight stretch and collapse on the sidewalk under my shoes as I stepped, I felt saddened and buoyed by the stupid similarity of the titular character’s plight to my own, flooded with gratitude for how many scenes in which I’d silently pled with him to wake up, simply forgive himself, love himself and allow himself to be loved; wiping tears and flinging them into the Northampton night with the side of my hand, knowing I too could change if only because I’d wanted Barney to so badly. The cast shines. Dustin Hoffman oozes charm. Minnie Driver cloys lusciously. Rosamund Pike is the womanly embodiment of dawn. And pasty, bloated Paul Giamatti fucks bad acting in the ass with a skyscraper. Gorged on popcorn and tortured by thirst, I climbed the two flights of stairs into my dark apartment. Light painted my profile as I opened the refrigerator, found the Brita, and poured a cord of cold water into the bottom of the Jacksonville Jaguars glass I’d drawn from the cupboard. The music made as it struck and filled and danced into the vessel echoed the voice of an ancient angel.
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.