The meaning of Mike Leigh's newest film is all in how you pronounce the title. Is it Another Year said with a resigned sigh, acknowledging that the days come at you relentlessly without caring if you can keep up? Or is it a more contented sigh, piling on another year like an extra log on a cozy, long-burning fire? The characters of the film are likely to see it both ways, and the great pleasure of Another Year is spending long, unbroken chunks of time with them, people reaching the middle of their lives with different things to show for it and wildly different ideas of how to best live it from here.

Working in his trademark improvisational, deeply researched style with actors he knows well, Leigh brings us three central characters fully built from the moment we meet them: Gerri (Ruth Sheen) is a empathetic, rock-solid counselor married to Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geologist who loves cuddling with Gerri in their cozy home and gardening as much as she does. They're pretty much a perfect middle-aged couple, which makes them an ideal safe harbor for Mary (Lesley Manville), a pushing-50 single woman who wears animal prints and rhinestones, laughs readily and makes for entertaining dinner conversation, and drowns her insecurities her wine until they all come spilling out anyway at the end of the night.

The film takes place largely at Tom and Gerri's rambling home over the course of four seasons, and though Gerri, Tom and Mary are the only characters featured in all four-- also the only characters we see at work-- they are joined by a constellation of weirdos who, like Mary, seem drawn to Tom and Gerri's steady presence. Tom's old friend Ken (Peter Wight) has never met a vice he didn't like, including making passes at Mary and drinking to the point that he carries around a bottle of red wine like a baby with milk; Tom and Gerri's 30-year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman) is a good kid but a little stunted, not even able to properly protest when Mary inappropriately starts hitting on him; maybe worst of all is Tom's brother Ronnie (David Bradley), who is nearly catatonic when he appears late in the film and unable to cope with his angry son Carl (Martin Savage) or even the basics of packing a suitcase.

Yes, there's plenty of stuff here to be depressed about-- and I haven't even mentioned Imelda Staunton's beautiful cameo as one of Gerri's hostile patients-- but Another Year unfolds with a natural grace and humanity, partly thanks to Tom and Gerri's infinite warmth but also due to the film's deep affection for its characters. Manville brings so many rich layers to the sad, hopeful, canny and desperate Mary, and in the hands of Wight even an old, obese drunk like Ken is sympathetic and somehow innately likable. Though Tom and Gerri initially come across as dull witnesses to the actual events of the film, their quick humor and genuine love together win you over; the slightest glances between Broadbent and Sheen prove they're not just earnest simpletons caring for their loony friends, but two ordinary people who believe their lives are enriched by the people around them.

It all sounds very sentimental and stuffy, but Another Year moves with great vitality and humor through its four seasons, ending on a melancholy note that still doesn't discount the possibility of true happiness for any of these characters we've come to love. The New York Film Festival critic audience-- which, lets face it, tends to skew a little older-- went predictably nuts for the movie, but as someone younger even than Gerri and Tom's son Joe, I was moved by the film's look at aging, at loving someone after decades together, and at considering your next move when the years are running short. It's a deceptively complex, beautifully crafted piece of work, and one I imagine I'll enjoy revisiting as the years start sneaking up on me as well.

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