Friday, November 10, 2017

Another Year - Mike Leigh (2010)

To Have and Have not

Mike Leigh’s films often feel like illustrations of clinical diagnostic categories. I can imagine students watching and discussing the disorders manifest by all the ‘atypical’ characters. Not unexpectedly with Another Year he seems as interested in making us squirm as in inducing catharsis. A discomfort not discernibly distinct from annoyance or mild disgust. He achieves this substitution by stuffing his frame with buzzing, twitching, lived-in personifications of socially maladjusted types typically presenting some combination of hysterical conversion, neurasthenia, and plain old grumpy slovenliness. All this should be well-familiar to anyone who's watched previous Leigh efforts. What's unexpected is the amount of self-examination the carefully calibrated squirming induces, making Another Year cathartic in its own understated way. 

The moral core of the film is a comfortably situated couple near retirement. Almost smugly content with their lot, Tom Hepple (Jim Broadbent) and wife Gerri (the elfin Ruth Sheen) tend their patch in a local community garden and drink a lot of wine when not professionally engaged. 

The voice of civility and reason, Gerri is a social worker, while husband Tom, grounded and affable, works as a geologist. Together they represent the party of mental health and prosperity--the pole of sanity anchoring Leigh's film and attracting our normative identification. A tale of gracious hosts put upon by uncouth manipulators and emerging with their dignity in tact may not sound like the stuff of compelling drama, but Leigh and his cast devise to pull us irresistibly into their gently churning vortex of breached social mores and missed queues. 

                                    Moral incommensurability is the focus of Leigh's cinema of domestic ill-manners.

 Envy is ever present in Leigh’s cinematic universe, most explicitly in Happy-go Lucky. The felicity of the fortune-favored--the unequal distribution of the capacity for happiness--can be as corrosive as the desperation of have-nots. In Another Year Mary (Lesley Manville), Gerri’s unattached co-worker, embodies the self-frustrating vacuum of invidious comparison

Gerri invites Mary to dinner on occasion, less out of genuine interest for her professional inferior than out of a sense of obligation. It's never in doubt that the privilege is Mary's. As her increasingly disordering neuroticisms—self-absorption, neediness and general over-acting—become burdensome, the Hepples confront the film's pivotal dilemma. 

Thrusting herself into the center of conversation, drinking to inebriation, and over-staying her welcome, Mary avails herself of the Hepple's hospitality to turn them into parent-surrogates. Though they partly bring it on themselves with their ‘motivational’ solicitude. In her regressed states they become unwitting auditors of her interminable petty grievances. Our sympathy is with the Hepples, but their neighborliness begins to arouse the suspicion that they don't know how to set boundaries. This turns out not to be the case, but in the meantime we don't know whether to applaud or descry their long-suffering generosity. 

The discrepancy of provision gives the Hepples a power that must offend egalitarian sensibilities. We feel sorry that they are so put-upon by Mary's self-involved desperation, yet the very fact that they are forced to forbear gives them a superiority that belies that friendship is the motive of their hospitality, as friendship transpires between equals, not dependents. At the same time their influence is burdensome rather than empowering, investing them with a sense of real responsibility towards Mary. It's painful to watch their bond erode beyond the point of no-return under the corrosive action of the supplicant 's need and the host's growing resentment. 

Mary is convinced the Hepple's grown-up son Joe (Oliver Maltman), unattached at 30, would make a promising prospect, a notion she is bitterly, and predictably, disabused of when his preternaturally chipper new girl-friend Katie (Karina Fernandez) shows up. Katie becomes the enduring trigger of Mary’s 'sorrow.' And our annoyance. 

Enthusing with the same manic ebullience of Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, Katie's good cheer gratifies the Hepples but repels Mary. What makes Katie and Poppy so irritating is the irrepressibility of their chronic lightheartedness, which acts to deflect all contrary affective modalities like a shield. If sympathy is the social grace that greases the skids of intercourse by proportioning levels of affect, such unbending good-cheer must count as selfish, if not anti-social. Though diametrically opposed to ill-humor, it may, under certain circumstances, be comparably disruptive, even as it understands itself as uniquely conducive to concord. Given the differences of temperament, it isolates as often as it promotes affiliation. The power of the good to diminish us, ubiquitous in life, is rarely explored cinematically. Leigh's repeated emplotment of it makes him a notable exception to this conspiracy of silence.

Manville’s furtive impersonation of a discombobulated hysteric comes with all the bells and whistles we expect of a Mike Leigh production, its scene-clawing theatricality bringing to mind Miriam Hopkins’ thespian rivalry with Bette Davis in Old AcquaintanceIt feels only marginally more organic than that performance. Her studied embodiment of dejection and drunkenness in particular make us all too aware that an actress is plying her craft. Excesses may be the whole point of her hysterical character, but Leigh overindulges Manville. As if we could not be trusted to appreciate that Mary is pathetic short of being completely submerged in her vacuous turbulence. 

Had Mary been less drastically personified our loyalties would have been more divided. Fewer close-ups and more inclusive framing would also have fostered ambiguity—the psychological corollary of the plot that keeps on giving by keeping one guessing. In Another Year we are less in suspense about than dreading the embarrassments destined to be visited upon us as Mary's characterologically begotten faux-pas self-iterate ad nauseum.

Just when we’ve had our fill of overbearing quirkiness, bumptious chub Ken  (Peter Wight) makes his appearance.  A compulsive snacker,  he barely has time to breath as he gorges himself on Gerri’s home-cooking, slugging back alcoholic beverages with the same want of delicacy Mary brings to the practice. His gluttony and her furtive emptiness may seem destined for symbiosis, but she spurns his graceless overtures. Reluctantly, given her desperation, yet unambiguously. 

After the bleak funeral and wake of Tom's sister-in-law, Mary makes the acquaintance of her surviving husband, stoic Ronnie (David Bradley), who, though barely able to connect, has the virtue of not inducing envy in her.  

Leigh ought to try his hand at comedy given his fascination with inferior types. Yet to ascribe satirical intent to Leigh would be to misunderstand his profoundly moral vision. His focus on the implosions of disagreeable and damaged people is  but a means to challenge our capacity--or preparedness--to sustain sympathy with losers. His marathons of ill-manners are trials of object-constancy. 

Charity is a Bitch

At its deepest level Another Year grapples with the issue of whether we have a duty to exercise charity towards those who abuse it. It’s easy to be compassionate in good times. The test is to exercise hospitality towards individuals whose manipulative neediness puts them beyond the pale. When Mary turns up unannounced the very evening Joe and Katie are expected, Gerri is confronted with a dilemma of conscience. She is anything but glad to see her, and conveys this by her matter-of-fact comportment. Her displeasure is not lost on Mary, who becomes quite distraught. Conferring with Tom, Gerri decides she can't just “chuck her out” given her state. Besides, she concludes, “I’ve got enough food.” Their bounty obliges the Hepples to provide. 

Fearing the worst and hoping for the best, they resign themselves to including Mary. The intimate conference between husband and wife, transcending their aversion to include a damaged soul despite her exploitative neediness, beautifully shows a question of moral character resolved in media res of a day's micro-decisions

Leigh stands in the English tradition that gave us the works of Austen, Elliot, and Dickens, as well as socio-realist 'kitchen-sink' cinema. A tradition first and foremost--in contradistinction to the more cynical French realist novel and the aestheticism of the nouvelle vague--moral in recognizing that the authority of conscience is no more or less basic to narrative art than the unmasking of hypocrisy. The risk of tendentiousness, of course, comes with the territory. 

In the final scene Mary's sad fate is exposed. It's tempting to call it her comeuppance, yet Leigh is not out to punish her, but rather to reveal her shame at its point of consummation. In a drawn-out pan about the table revealing one guest after another, he leaves us in the dark as long as he can about whether Mary has decided to stay or, in what would be her act of charity, cut her loses and left. We are given enough time to hope she has taken the initiative and departed with her shred of dignity. But alas she finally comes into view--(ecce homo!)--eyes downward cast, twitching in dumb dejection on the margins of Good Life.  

Leigh's study of bourgeois mores is a tragedy because it emplots how the unequal distribution of the capacity for happiness--and the moral incommensurability that results--manifest where the liabilities of temperament intersect with the vagaries of fortune. Sandwiched between the extremes of the involuntary, the individual 'forges his fortune'. Such is Mary's--and everyone's--assignment and hazard in life. Even filtered through the lens of the cleverest interpretive effort, non-negotiable circumstances--character and Fortune--defy the capacity of the individual to bend them to his will. 


It has been suggested that Tom and Gerri’s generosity may in fact be a kind of power-play to gratify their need, presumably, to feel superior. That far from being exploited by Mary, they are in fact exploiting her. This extrapolation is not one that will seem compelling without a) a commitment to a notion of social justice that sees the leveling all distinctions of class and privilege, regardless of individual accomplishment and responsibility, as mandatory, and b) adherence to an unmasking interpretive strategy that contradicts all manifest meanings by turning them into their opposite, usually by tracing them back to illicit strategies of domination. These interpretive agendas are intimately connected, the first availing itself of the second to redeem Mary from her self-enfeeblement “and” social inferiority (viz., her oppression by an unjust system). 

Such a tendentious interpretive approach does violence to the depth of  meaning conveyed on the surface of the film. The implication that the Leigh’s point is not that there are inequities in society, but to reveal the fate—and guilt—of one individual eviscerated by sorrow, longing and resentment. The final shot reveals that Mary’s envy—her anger about being excluded from the good—is on everyone’s radar. Mary’s moral corruption has been exposed, her hostility disarmed. She has nowhere to hide and nothing to contribute. She is being tolerated. Can there be a more searing violation of personal dignity? 

Does that make Mary Leigh’s victim? This raises the question of culpability. Can one victimize oneself or does it take a village? Do we need to make society safe for people who invidiously compare themselves to others? Or does the therapeutic welfare state, at some point, respect that there must be limits to its ministry and leave people to their wits and fate?

It is amazing the ends to which even moral philosophers and social scientists will go to frame their subjects with no reference to envy, the dark energy of social life. Envy is especially taboo in egalitarian centuries in which conditions of relative equality exasperate the evidence of privilege. Its erasure from public discourse goes hand-in-hand with the notion that everyone ought to be, in all ways, equal. This belief in a global right to equality--which is strictly speaking absurd, given that equality is only meaningful in reference to specific qualities and institutions--is the founding dogma of our age. To question it, either directly or by showing the dark side of inequality as anything other than the direct result of privilege and exploitation, is to put oneself beyond the pale. 

Other motivations for such an retributive interpretation are, paradoxically, the Christian spiritual motif of raising up (redeeming) the lowly, as well as the currently ubiquitous conviction—the creed  of our feministically sensitized therapeutic culture—that women are emblematically victims. The new orthodoxy can be observed in all facets of social life. Its goal of a just society—which amalgamates political with therapeutic and spiritual, public with private, ends—is one in which guilt and shame have been banished and the right to ‘self-esteem’ trumps all other goods. Most perversely of all, envy becomes an index of social injustice, because, as we all know, society corrupts and no individual, all things being equal, would choose to feel mortified by the aspect of superior good fortune…

In one sense Mary is Leigh’s victim--as Antigone was Sophocles’, Gretchen Goethe’s, Madame Bovary Flaubert’s, Anna Karenina Tolstoy’s, etc. Men have been sacrificing women in the arts for generations. Which suggests that it is the fate of women to be victims. What is a tragedy for the individual woman, is an enrichment for art and society. 

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