I'm convinced. Actually, I've long been convinced. There is not a better filmmaker walking the earth right now than Mike Leigh.
Why else do movies, or any other art form, exist but to make the viewer feel something? So if you want to see movies that make you emote joy or discomfort or anger followed by joy again, then see a Mike Leigh movie. I defy any attentive person to witness Life is Sweet without giggling manically throughout and then breaking into sudden tears when jolly mother Allison Steadman confronts hard-hearted daughter Jane Horrocks about her disenchantment with the world. Why wouldn't one blanch at and then agree with David Thewlis' hope-murdering rants against existence in Naked? How could you not be moved by smirking Philip Davis and nurturing Ruth Sheen looking out for while making fun of the departing, clueless Jason Watkins in High Hopes? What jerk could fail to marvel at Jim Broadbent, as W.S. Gilbert, giving precise notes to his cast while building upThe Mikado in Topsy Turvy? What human can't understand the pain of husband Tim Stern as he suffers the sharp words of Allison Steadman's callous wife Beverly during Abigail's Party? And when Imelda Staunton's Vera Drake gets visited by the police, whose heart isn't thrust throatward? I must now offer some scenes:
David Thewlis and Peter Wight in 1993's NAKED
Allison Steadman, Janine Duvitsky, Tim Stearn and John Salthouse in 1977's ABIGAIL'S PARTY
Timothy Spall and Leslie Manville in 2002's ALL OR NOTHING
Jane Horrocks and Claire Skinner in 1990's LIFE IS SWEET
Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan in 2008's HAPPY-GO-LUCKY
Shirley Henderson in 1999's TOPSY-TURVY
Imelda Staunton and cast in 2004's VERA DRAKE
Mike Leigh has been making all sorts of movies--from features to shorts to TV movies--since his incredible 1971 debut Bleak Moments. In that film, he pretty much set the stage for what we could expect from him: exacting examinations of the less fortunate, or less wise, or more gifted, among the rich and poor denizens of London. He's never deterred from his station, because he knows when he's found a good and wealthy thing. And the stance has not yet betrayed him, regardless of time period or personage.
His newest film, Another Year, doesn't disappoint. In a way, it's kind of a Mike Leigh fan film, in that it includes a cast that he's well familiar with. Jim Broadbent, as the patriarch, marks his fifth film with Leigh; Ruth Sheen, as the matriarch, notes her fifth film as well; and lead Leslie Manville notches her seventh time out with the deviser/director.
Note that I used the word "deviser." Just in case you're not aware, Mike Leigh's movies are not written like other movies are. This is what makes them so special. You can never tell where they're going because the maker, and the actors, never know where they're going, either. In short, in the beginning stages of a project, Leigh arrives at an idea for a film, then asks a set of actors to join him, and then they together organize a story based on Leigh's idea. After a series of improvisations, the director later solidifies the results into a stolid script. Leigh, who has a deep and ongoing involvement in the theater, has in this way kept his ardor of the stage's surprising qualities kicking and has transmogrified them into his passion for cinema, too. This, I submit, makes him the most original filmmaker working today.
He's never operated in any other way. He's the modern originator of this process, and you can tell that his actors love him for it. At least, I could tell this, having attended the Q&A with Broadbent, Sheen, Manville, Leigh and producer Georgina Lowe following the screening of Another Year at the 2010 New York Film Festival (Another Year is dedicated to Leigh's longtime producer, the recently passed Simon Channing Williams). I have to say, the ovation at the fest was the most fervent I'd experienced. The film got a minute of applause, and each of the participant's got 30 seconds applause a piece. That's almost five minutes of love there.
And so deserved it was. Another Year is yet another masterpiece from Leigh. It's a film about aging, yes, and it's consequently about the quickening of time (this is a very important element of the film, and one I fear might be overlooked by younger film writers). It's also a film about the limits of friendship, and how much well-adjusted mates can stand before their less well-adjusted friends drag them down. Broadbent and Sheen play a happily married couple named Tom and Gerri ("That's brilliant," says another character). He's an engineering geologist, and she's a counselor at a hospital, where she works with a troubled Mary, played by Manville. Tom and Gerri are cheery and upbeat, with only Mary's continual troubles causing them consternation. The year in question--quartered into seasons--puts their relationship to the test, as it begins with Mary's breakup with a bloke, and continues with her desperate fascination with Tom and Gerri's son Joe (Oliver Maltman). We know where this is going to go, but Mary has no idea, because she's sodden by alcohol. (Mike Leigh's movies have a lot to do with the downsides of alcohol, because they're so attuned with their U.K. place in the world.)
Manville is a marvel here. Given her seven appearances in Leigh films, you'd never recognize her as the person who played the eye-shadowed new wife in Grown Ups, the snooty next-door neighbor in High Hopes, Gilbert's powdered spouse in Topsy Turvy, or the sadly deluded, depressed mother in All or Nothing. In Another Year, she plays a recognizable Leigh type, but she makes the role absolutely her own. Mary is a lady who was once sure of herself, but who has let life pass her by. The largely lighthearted Another Year catches this character as she begins to realize the horror of the nest she's built for herself.
There are four characters who help her to this point. Imelda Staunton (an obvious Leigh veteran) is a depressed housewife appealing to Gerri, and informing Mary that marriage isn't necessarily the answer. Peter Wight, unforgettable as Tom and Gerri's hardy friend Ken, is a overweight alcoholic who's romantic advances clue Mary in about what she really desires, to her terror. Karina Fernandez, as Joe's lover Katie, gently accepts Mary's scorn as the woman Mary never could have been. And David Bradley, in the last fourth of the film, as Broadbent's newly-widowed brother Ronnie, looks perplexed as Mary asks, after his wife's funeral, whether or not he'd like a cuddle (these are among the best scenes in the film).
Does this sound complicated? It's not. Leigh's movies, save for their characters' thick brogues (not in evidence here), are never hard to understand. They might be hard to WITHSTAND, but that's a great thing. They make you feel, and feel deeply. Another Year does so not only with its terrific acting and direction, but with its gleaming widescreen photography (by valued Leigh regular Dick Pope) and its unusually gorgeous music by Gary Yershon (I always love the scores to Leigh's movies, but this one is especially emotional, and I blieve Leigh thinks so, too, according to his comments to the NYFF audience).
I couldn't believe my great fortune to be in the same big room with the makers of Another Year. After it was over, I waited patiently to see what would happen. Manville, Sheen and Broadbent hung out in the lobby of the Water Reade Theater, talking eagerly to the press. I could have asked them a million questions. But I was most interested in saying something personal to Mr. Leigh, so I had to pick my battles. I didn't want to ask Mr. Leigh for an autograph (though I had a VHS copy of Life is Sweet in my pocket). I merely wanted to tell him something.
So, I guess some would say I was stalking him. Maybe. I called to him as he opened the door to go out of the theater.
"Mr. Leigh?" I called. And he stopped, as I'd hoped, right in front of the Walter Reade.
"Hi. I just wanted to tell you something." I took my place in front of him, and looked into his impossibly blue eyes. They really struck me; they'd never seemed so blue in all the photos I'd seen.
"I just wanted to tell you. I'm so happy to talk to you, and tell you how much your movies mean to me. They make me feel so many things all at once, and that's what I go to movies for." I had to hold back tears here. "There's really nothing like them. And I just wanted to tell you how much I love them. And I wanted to thank you for them."
"Well, thank you," he softly said. "Thank you very much. What's your name?"
And I realized I didn't have my pass around my neck. "My name is Dean Treadway, and I help with a podcast called Movie Geeks United, and I do my own blog called filmicability. I know you're busy, but I have a couple of questions. I've read you've never been satisfied with the look of Abigail's Party, given that it's shot on video. Have you ever thought of remaking it on film?"
"Oh, no. It so much a piece of its time, there'd be no point in going back to it. It is exactly as it should be. It's done."
"It is very much at home in the 1970s. I can understand that. I was wondering, there's so much of your stage work that I haven't seen. Is there any chance I can see some of it here in New York?"
"Well, I'm looking to restage a play I did called Ecstacy. Are you familiar with that?"
"No, not really. I've seen the title, though."
"Well, that's in the works."
And then I couldn't resist. I pulled out my Life is Sweet VHS. "I gotta do this. Could you sign this, Mr. Leigh? I usually prefer to get people to sign one-sheets, but I couldn't find a one-sheet for this movie. It's my favorite of your works."
"Is it?" he asked, as he signed. "Oh, yeah," I said, "It makes me feel great every time I watch it."
"Well, thank you..."
"Thank you, Mr. Leigh, for everything."
"Good luck to you, Dean." We shook hands lightly, and then the best filmmaker on the planet walked away from me, looking me in the eye, and I remain, still, to this day, dumbstruck.