Prior to watching Another Year I was not in awe of Mike Leigh’s track record, but rather shamefully ignorant. I was keen to watch the film though because of some glowing reviews last year, promising trailers and that wonderful artwork and logo. I remember seeing said tree sprawling massively across an Odeon in London’s West End way back in the halcyon days of 2010, and thinking that was the type of thoughtful British picture I wanted to see.
The central idea behind the story, which Leigh scripted as well as directed, is tender, realistic and probably true to life. Happily married couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are lucky and they know it. The people in their lives, who seem far less blessed, gravitate towards them for kindness and warmth. Their son Joe (Oliver Maltman) is taking his time to find love as his friends get hitched left, right and centre, Gerri’s co-worker Mary’s (Lesley Manville) bubbly energy conceals her loneliness and Tom’s childhood friend Ken (Peter Wight) is trapped in Hull watching his precious roots wither away. The narrative plays out with a chunk from each of the year’s four seasons.
The opening scene was just what I had been hoping for and what Leigh’s reputation guaranteed. Imelda Staunton plays an insomniac pressing her GP for sleeping pills but understandably her doctor seeks out the true, underlying causes. Staunton’s character is clearly completely miserable; crestfallen at her lot in life and the realisation that this is all she’s likely to get. The scene lasts a full five minutes, uninterrupted; Leigh really lets it breathe and grow. For most of the scene we don’t see the GP’s face, helping us truly inhabit Staunton’s excellent performance. We’ve all felt like that at the doctors, like you’re just another appointment to be checked off by a faceless health drone.
The GP refers our dejected and menopausal patient to a counsellor. It turns out that Gerri is a counsellor. And this is where the problems begin with Another Year. Gerri continues to be a counsellor for the duration of the story, always behaving as though maintaining professional standards, even alone in bed with soul mate Tom. Ruth Sheen’s tone of voice never varies more than a fraction, making her seem either mildly interested or not that bothered. Whilst Broadbent’s range of reactions to the various problems of friends are different and human, Gerri deals with each situation on dull auto-pilot. Sheen’s performance genuinely seemed mechanical and totally robotic, which was a real shock after all the talk of quality acting.
The passing of the seasons is beautifully shot and there are moments of heart warming dialogue that is convincingly ordinary and recognisable from everyday life. Do I really want to watch a film with conversations startlingly similar to the small talk I run away from in reality though? It all gets rather dreary, with next to no drama in the first two seasons and not a pinch of escapism. Leigh’s script also has some awful expositional dialogue, particularly for Lesley Manville’s character Mary, Tom and Gerri’s desperately clingy friend. I cringed at the clumsy manner her myriad but dull problems were introduced and grimaced later at Manville’s caricatured portrayal of an overzealous eccentric going off the rails. Her drunkenness at BBQs is amateurish.
Or is it? I honestly don’t know if I fell into the trap of mistaking the annoying traits of a character for bad acting and storytelling. This is because the last two seasons, autumn and winter, went a long way to redeeming the failures of the first couple. As Mary reaches rock bottom her character becomes far more bearable and Manville’s performance finally makes you empathise and feel pity, sympathy, and even sadness. David Bradley puts in a fabulous performance as Tom’s grieving brother who is a man of few words. Some of his scenes with Broadbent, and an extended one with Manville, are superb.
I don’t want to mimic the idiotic readers of the X-Factor age who throw away a book they’re reading in disgust because the characters are not “likeable”. Novels and films are not about providing you with brief friendship. But Another Year is hard to get into. As I’ve said I was really surprised by how irritating I found the performances of Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville. In Manville’s case I think I judged her too quickly and her character was simply a vibrant pain in the neck, well realised. However I maintain that Sheen was simply two dimensional, which is disappointing given the importance of actors to such an ensemble piece. By the time Another Year ended I was starting to enjoy it but there’s no doubt that this is a film with the potential to frustrate as well as reward.
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The most stylish person in a room looks different to everyone else. Often the first step to style, the boldest move towards quality, is doing something different and distinctive. A lot of the time these risky moves will end in tears but some people just have the knack for it.
Three such people are directors Quentin Tarantino, Jason Reitman and Roman Polanski. Recently I’ve watched some of the best known, latest works of all of these men and it’s clear they’re endowed with the lucky gift of success when embracing the unconventional.
Firstly Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is such a fascinating, intriguing picture. Events within the plot and elements of the execution bear Tarantino’s sensational touch – leading Nazis weren’t slaughtered in reality in a cinema in Paris – but that does not mean there aren’t serious elements to this film too. On the surface it’s a simplified, warped version of history, with a non-existent band of American Jews exacting revenge for the Holocaust, which wasn’t widely known about until the discovery of death camps at the end of the conflict. But at the very least it’s a sumptuous exercise in the best of filmmaking and with its faithful use of various languages, does say something factual rather than fictionalised about the misunderstandings and deceptions of war. It’s also, somehow, hilarious.
As the film’s star Brad Pitt says in one of the interviews on the Blu-Ray disc, this film plays out more like a novel. It’s broken into chapters, the first handful of which establish the characters and the rest bring them together for an explosive, visually stunning finale. Only a few of these characters are typical and expected for the wartime context; the French farmer in the marvellous opening scene for example. But the rest are Tarantino creations. They’re extremely vivid and engaging but also wild, sometimes implausible extremes, almost as if plucked from the pages of a striking graphic novel. Somehow the director/writer makes them wonderfully believable and then gives them bags of room to play in his chapters, which often consist of one, long and extended scene.
The opening scene establishes the marvellous character of the “Jew hunter” played by Christoph Waltz. There are some splendid, picturesque shots of the French countryside, followed by a wonderfully tense dialogue scene indoors. The interrogative German is sinister through his politeness, only to reveal the true nature of his visit. Other scenes in the film get similar space to breathe and come to life, in particular another edge of the seat, tense encounter in a tavern. This is the film’s longest scene and is incredibly realistic and satisfying as the spies, including the wonderful Michael Fassbender, attempt not to blow their cover. Language again plays an important role, and does so throughout, becoming almost another character. Often Inglorious Basterds feels more like a play, only for some explosive action to remind you that only a film could deliver such thrills, laughs and intrigue. Ultimately the spot-on dialogue, lengthy scenes, exploration of language and sensational characters and events, is not only stylish but says something worthwhile about the war.
All of these films say something worthwhile. Juno chips in with messages about taking people at face value and what really makes relationships work, as well as challenging views of young people. And The Ghost, whilst being primarily an impressive exercise in storytelling rather than a substantive study of politics, does have some underlying messages about identity and ethics.
If you had one word to describe Juno, chances are it would be “quirky”. Anywhere you look online you’ll find this label plastered to the film’s witty face. Personally it seems an unfair, limiting term for such an intelligent, funny, well-acted production. But I guess it is undoubtedly true. Juno isn’t your average teenager. She’s witty, quick and cynical. She wasn’t used by some sex mad male but got knocked up by banging the best friend who’s crazy about her out of boredom. She sets about helping a deserving couple, rather than unthinkingly obliterating the fledgling life inside her.
The couple she decides to “donate” her child to are almost as important to the story as Juno. Played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, they are the grown-up heart of the film, the crucial counterpoint to Juno’s usually happy exuberance. All the cast deal superbly with fast, funny dialogue, including Juno herself, Ellen Page, as well as her Dad and Step-Mom, J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney. And of course the love that suddenly blossoms at the end with Michael Cera, is wonderfully touching and encompassed by the duet which ends the film.
Of all these films it’s The Ghost with the most stylistic flourishes, perhaps ironic given the everyman Brit accent adopted by Ewan McGregor. There are no jaw-dropping stunts in this film; all the drama comes from the story and suffocating, tense locations. When crucial, potentially stunning events occur in the plot, Polanski deals with them with the utmost style. The film starts by simply showing an abandoned car to heighten the mystery surrounding the death of the previous Ghost Writer, rather than showing a spectacular murder scene. At the climax of the film McGregor’s character is abruptly hit by a car out of shot; we only see papers scatter and swirl in the traffic, littering the street.
Rich in detail, in The Ghost we learn surprisingly little about anything ever. Polanski somehow captures the Dan Brown like, page-turning twists of the novel and distils them on film, whilst also adding a layer of intelligence to the swerves of the plot. You are gripped, determined to keep watching for the big reveal. A reveal cunningly disguised throughout and then stylishly unveiled with an anticipation building close-up of a gradually passed note. The Ghost is immensely enjoyable and stylish; I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
So filmmakers do something different, unpredictable and restrained if you want to make it big and be lavished with praise.
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