Oct 7, 2010

NYFF: Another Year

Finally, a thoroughly delightful film in the festival, where most of the films have tended towards the darker side of human nature. Mike Leigh is a Chekhov for our times. I can't think of any other artist that can meld laughter and pain with such beauty and grace. His films are like rich tapestries or symphonies of human relations, with  beautifully layered notes, colors, harmonies, dissonances, and textures of human emotion. When you see a Chekhov play, directors tend to have trouble balancing the laughter and the pathos. This is not the case with Mike Leigh. His films give us an accurate representation of human character with all the comic and tragic nuances beautifully shaded. It is not only that the actors (some of whom have been working with him for years) are astounding because of his famous process of arriving at the script through months of improvisation. Leigh's actors are allowed time and space to inhabit their characters so fully as to create the most realistic illusion of intimacy. But the movie is beautiful in its own right, with elegant and expressive cinematography by Dick Pope, excellent costume design, gorgeously made.
How refreshing it is to see a film where the main characters (although this is an ensemble piece) are a nice, decent couple, Tom and Gerri, who have a longstanding marriage and who care for their friends. When was the last time you saw this on a screen? This couple is played to perfection by the great Jim Broadbent and the great Ruth Sheen, who are happy with their lives and who generously open their house to family and friends like Mary, (Lesley Manville) a lonely, needy woman of that age where women stop existing for men. Mary is surrounded by a fog of her own lonely desperation. She is all nervous, centrifugal energy, which means that she expends it all her considerable energy on herself. She is a good person, but she is desperately lonely, and likes to delude herself with impossible flirtations, only to come crashing hard when they don't bear fruit. Manville's performance is quite over the top. She twitches and sulks and kidnaps social occasions with her manic energy, but at the core she is just miserably lonely and full of pain, and she is utterly believable. I could count 5 women I know that reminded me of her.
Gerri, who is her colleague, takes pity on her and frequently invites her for dinner. The woman is a saint. Mary comes to Tom and Gerri to be consoled, and to drink all their wine, and get so pissed she has to stay the night. Here is an example of Leigh's  incredible touch:  Mary gets wasted in an interminably garrulous scene, and then Gerri suggests she should stay the night. Mary protests too much and then Gerri says, "I'll find you another t-shirt", so it turns out this is not a unique event: it has become a ritual, for Mary probably cannot contemplate going home alone. Five words of dialog, and we get a full canvas of a life lived in lonely misery.
Tom and Gerri humor her, quite humorously, for there are plenty of funny lines in the movie and you laugh at her character and their reactions to her, but at the same time it is just heartbreaking. Mary is what my mother would call an onshikenish in Yiddish. The word actually means a plague, but Mary is just a good person that is hard to bear, as everything revolves around her neediness. But sad as she may be, she never turns into tragedy or bathos.
There are other characters: the couple's son, a young man in his thirties that has everyone worrying about his bachelorhood, Ronnie, Tom's taciturn brother; Ken, a friend of Tom's who is just as lonely and as sad as Mary, and Carl, a nephew who shows up late for five minutes to a funeral and releases dark discontent as thick as ink. The contrasts between the characters' individual realities serve to add dimension to each one of them, as we see all of them through everyone's eyes.
The film chronicles a full year in the lives and relationships of these people, and the seasons are framed by a garden that is tended by Tom and Gerri, just as they take care of their family and friends, with loving care. Things happen as they do in life. The son finally meets a girlfriend, the wife of Tom's brother dies, a baby is born, Ken comes to visit. He likes Mary but she can't abide him. As it is in life.
We are lucky to being allowed to enter the rich fabric of these people's lives, fictional characters that breathe real life. A beautiful film.

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