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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Some people are perfectionists. You cannot imagine them any other way. They strive again and again to be the best, to fulfil their wildest, finely crafted, unblemished dreams. We all know people that work themselves into an unfathomable, illogical frenzy about the slightest flaw. You worry about what will happen to them if they ever completely lose perspective and fall through the cracks of their own expectations. How far can they push themselves, what lengths will they go to in the quest for perfection? Will you lose the person you know as they struggle towards faultlessly achieving their goals?
Black Swan is a film about the extremes of the perfectionist and the mania that can ensue in the dizzy rush for excellence in art. It’s packed full of themes about creativity and control, trust and tantrums. Is talent about honing your skills again and again until they’re technically sound, or something more intangible you must simply give into, like desire? Can anyone ascend to stardom and maintain their youthful innocence? Just how destructive can all consuming ambition be? Most of all, whatever questions Black Swan raises, it is a piece of beautifully pure, utterly gripping drama.
Drama as powerful and captivating as this is rarely found at the cinema these days. Perhaps because of the influence of and sizeable chunks of Swan Lake used in the film, Black Swan has the sensual quality of a stage production. Frequently it is flinchingly shocking. Acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky ratchets up the tension and paranoia to chilling, unsettling but completely compelling levels. The whole thing is a visual feast. Most surprisingly of all, given the sheer number of scares jostling for position and all the hype around the film, there were more than a handful of moments in which the auditorium was plagued by infectious giggles.
Most of these laughs come via Vincent Cassel’s Thomas Leroy, director of the New York ballet company. He is amusingly frank with Natalie Portman’s Nina, as is Mila Kunis as Nina’s dancing rival Lily. Both of these supporting cast members give excellent performances but it’s Portman’s Oscar worthy turn rightly stealing the headlines. In the past I’ve found her acting irritating, especially her regular appearances as an English rose type figure, with stereotypical accent. She was the only thing I mildly disliked about V for Vendetta. But here Portman’s character is meant to be prissy and annoying, and despite this as her delusions worsen and multiply you find yourself rooting for her to overcome her demons. Her portrayal of mental confusion and paranoia spiralling into madness is startling.
Barbara Hershey plays Nina’s controlling mother, who has projected her disappointments from her own curtailed career onto her daughter. In a sickly sweet, cotton ball world at home Nina lives as a little girl, primed only to succeed as a dancer. This suffocating environment is far from helpful as Nina works to try and embrace the role of evil, seductive Black Swan as well as the pure, fragile and perfect White Swan Queen. Her director continually tells her to loosen up and the suffocation from Nina’s home life spread throughout the film, haunting her and the audience. Nina projects her own anxieties onto the confident, relaxed Lily, who soon becomes a recurring, taunting theme in her fantasies.
At the beginning of the film, Cassel’s director tells his dancers his will be a “visceral” reworking of Swan Lake. And Black Swan is certainly visceral. Of course it touches on all the themes I mentioned earlier, but in reality it’s far too over the top to explore them properly. Above all else it is a fantastical and theatrical story. You’ll be gripped by the drama, haunted and confused by the plot. Sucked in by claustrophobic visuals, charmed by stunning dance sequences and engaged by superb acting; Black Swan has a bit of everything and its vividness is inexplicable. You won’t see anything more sensual this year.
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