We all know someone like Mary. Maybe, in an hour of rare honesty, we’ll come clean as the genuine article ourselves. Regardless, she’s less a “type” than the strikingly familiar; the sort of person so pervasive and ubiquitous that we’ve come to take her for granted. So common, in fact, that we’re knocked on our heels when we (rarely) encounter her opposite. As such, she’s all but the stand-in for the human experience. This Mary, played to perfection by Lesley Manville, is all worry and woe; so aggressively put-upon that she bleeds martyrdom from any number of self-inflicted cuts. She never seems to lack for things to do, but from the moment she enters a room, chairs pivot, tongues cease, and lips close – her act, predictably, is of the solo variety. If there’s trouble, she’ll top it. Any wrong turn or issue will be challenged, flipped, and discarded as failing to measure up to Mary’s own unenviable existence. Even the usual cause for celebration – the purchase of a new car (though one that is reduced to an ox cart by the time Mary gets done qualifying it) – is immediately transformed into the requisite tragedy, as rather than liberating her from the tube, it creates a new set of problems, including traffic tickets, repairs, and theft. She’s the very person, then, who would bemoan a lottery jackpot because of the necessary taxes.
Just today, I encountered my own little Mary, the kind who uses the presence of another human being as an excuse for unending blather. Pausing only to damn near choke on her Chicken McNugget, she rattled on about the sort of life that sounds so painfully exhausting that it becomes impossible to imagine actually living it. But someone’s to blame, and like hell she’ll ever turn inward. Though I could not see the face of the Job-like woman sitting across from poor Mary in that booth from hell, I could detect that special brand of paralysis that afflicts one who never learned that sometimes, it’s acceptable to risk alienation if it means a clean escape. She uttered not a word, and even though Mary would insist she’s seeking advice, counsel, or even a compassionate shoulder, it matters not what, if anything, the other person brings to the monologue. Even loneliness, it seems, needs an audience. Just nod, agree, and by all means, stay awake. One doesn’t want to be rude, does one?
Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are their own version of the silent woman in the restaurant; unfailingly polite, calm, and happy to open their door for the latest incarnation of Mary’s traveling circus. Though they pipe in now and again with words of wisdom, they still function in much the same way as a slab of balsa wood, and if Mary would ever express affection for them, it’s only because she hasn’t yet been told to fuck off. Mary has worked with Gerri for many years, and it’s a testament to Gerri’s Gibraltar-like endurance that she hasn’t yet resorted to a hit man. So why does she do it? Like many friendships, which inevitably reach a point where neither party has any good reason to continue save, well, continuity itself, there was likely a pleasing first act, though someone like Mary is usually set in marble by the opening bell. Perhaps, those decades ago, her flighty madness had a certain charm befitting carefree youth, which in middle age is the pinnacle of pathetic decay. Falling in love with everything not nailed down (or grabbing at it like a drowning woman in need of reinforcement) can be quirky and “fun-loving” in a 25-year-old, but add thirty years and no one’s left laughing. Tom and Gerri long ago ran out of friends to set her up with (and likely lost a few in the process), and now, they’re reduced to watching her flirt with their son in a manner best described as grotesque. Even he plays along, but who among us wouldn’t humor a gin-soaked dingbat?
So what of Tom and Gerri? Does Mike Leigh intend them as a heroic contrast? It’s tempting to think so, but as much as they fail to grate in the same manner as Mary, they’re hardly a study in unending joy. Sure, they seem to inhabit that all-too-familiar marital landscape described as comfortable boredom, but even atrophy has its benefits. They love their garden, reading in bed, and relaxed conversation, but for all the lack of lows, there are decidedly few highs. They don’t seem to bicker or nitpick (they know each other too well for that), but neither do they seem capable of dramatic gestures that might once again set the blood to boiling. Tom and Gerri don’t have any great needs at this stage, and if there are regrets, they were long ago tabled with any possibility of greener pastures. This is one couple where an extra-marital affair seems preposterous on its face, not because either lacks sexual urges, but rather the whole charade would simply take too much effort. Routine has settled in like winter’s quieting hand, only without the depressing aftertaste. That said, Tom and Gerri are not above using an arrow of judgment from time to time. Though unstated and unrecognized, one could fairly argue that their strength as a couple derives, at least in part, from knowing how different from Mary they believe themselves to be.
If Leigh’s Another Year offers more than a four-seasoned look at different lives united in their unchanging ways, let it be said that happiness, even if partially delusional, is the rarest find in the human experience. Even that momentary grin comes at a price, for it usually means that someone, somewhere is wearing its opposite. Tom and Gerri might be able to sustain their simple pleasures in a vacuum, but why on earth entertain the likes of Mary unless it is to reflect on her circumstances while fixing dinner? I have no doubt that genuinely empathetic people exist, but much like the female orgasm, they are more urban legend than captured, pinned, and catalogued for future study. The presence of Ken (Peter Wight), another inexplicable friend of the family in that he shares nothing of Tom and Gerri’s lives, just might prove my thesis. Ken, like Mary, loves the booze, and his hefty frame and wheezing ineptitude are that much more obscene in light of the marital stability they consistently interrupt. Gerri informs Mary that at one time, he was “quite handsome”, which might reveal that once accepted, neither Tom nor Gerri are able to cut you loose. Like their hobbies and nightly encounters, Ken has been reduced to a habit as unbreakable as gravity. Everything in its place, lest the façade crumble ever so slightly.
The film is refreshingly free of clutter, and what passes for story is the unbending truth that our capacity to change is so miniscule that it barely registers at all. Someone dies, a relative moves in, and Tom and Gerri’s son finds a girlfriend, but all are not plot points so much as occurrences we acknowledge to be life as lived. And the center of it all, our dear Mary, carries on, if only because she has no real alternative. Her story, then, is ours in turn. No one knows when the door at last slams shut, but it’s safe to assume that it’s earlier than we’d care to admit, and we play out our days fighting against the accepted wisdom that reinvention is just around the corner. The film’s final scene is brutal in this regard, as the camera locks on Mary’s grim visage, contorting to the sounds of life going on without her. Slowly but surely, the surrounding noise fades away, and she’s left utterly alone with her fears. How does she cope? How does anyone so afflicted endure? Get married? Have children? Compromise, settle, and accept? Leigh’s ultimate silence on the matter, like the god of an indifferent universe, is about all we have to go on.