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The lives of three proletarian families in London form the fabric of Leigh’s eighth theatrical feature, another vividly traced and superlatively acted portrait of everyday working-class struggle. Cab driver Phil (Timothy Spall) and his grocery-cashier wife Penny (Lesley Manville) deal with the fallout of their heavyset son’s (James Corden) heart attack, while Penny’s colleague Maureen (Ruth Sheen) contends with her daughter’s unplanned pregnancy; meanwhile, Phil’s fellow driver Ron’s (Paul Jesson) homelife grows ever more fraught as his teenage daughter (Sally Hawkins) seemingly has eyes for two different boys, one of whom may be stalking her.
The main depressives, played by Leigh regulars Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville, are a cab driver and supermarket cashier with two extra-large children, one of whom stoically mops up after the elderly while the other strains the capacity of the family’s living-room couch.
Humanistic tearjerker or misanthropic troll opera? Leigh uses a somber cello-rich score to infuse this quotidian suffering with a mystical edge and high-culture gloss—and yet, thanks to the generally enthusiastic performing, the movie borders on farce. (It’s revealing that Leigh would be a fan of Todd Solondz.) The most Dickensian of British filmmakers, Leigh populates All or Nothing with a grotesque assortment of drunken hags, persistent old wankers, creepy loners, belligerent slugs, and nut-job taxi fares—not to mention the pair of lissome young actresses compelled to contort their features into hilarious Kabuki-mask scowls. The ensemble is as compact in its way as the cast of a sitcom—and no less inclined to squabble and whine. The exception is Ruth Sheen’s chipper impression of a single mother with a pregnant daughter.
Mike Leigh paints a warm and tragic portrait of the title character (Imelda Staunton), a good-hearted wife and mother in 1950 London who works as a cleaning lady but also as an unpaid abortionist. Much of the film’s potency derives from its personal edge–the passion for precise period decor, the title dedicating the film to Leigh’s parents (a doctor and midwife), and even the childlike classification of many characters as either good souls or villains. Leigh evokes British director Terence Davies in a brief cinemagoing scene, and the same innocence Davies brought to his stories of postwar Britain informs this parable of a person whose good works land her in prison (also the great theme of Roberto Rossellini’s Europa 51). The detailing of Vera’s family is close to perfection.
Leigh constructs the movie as an accretion of briskly delineated scenes: Vera and husband attending a picture show, Vera helping her plain daughter find a mate. The vignettes cut across class lines—moving from cramped, dingy flats to the palatial homes that Vera cleans, and showing, among other things, the means by which a poor little rich girl [ . . . ] terminates the fruit of a casual date rape.
Vera Drake divides neatly in two. As customary with Leigh, there’s a Manichaean streak—the selfish characters are truly odious. But what’s most provocative is the way that comfy social drama turns into unrelenting weepie [ . . . . ] As the dramatic space constricts and celestial music builds, our Vera is turned, most horribly, to stone. Her anguished solitude as she is judged by a world of powerful men in uniforms and wigs cannot help but invoke the passion of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Joan [ . . . . ] Building up to a shattering conclusion, Leigh’s movie is both outrageously schematic and powerfully humanist.
Played with star-making sparkle by Leigh stock-company player Sally Hawkins (whose performance earned her the Best Actress Silver Bear at the 2008 Berlinale), Poppy is a single, 30-year-old elementary school teacher whose relentless optimism is not always welcome. She has to deal with a child being bullied, and she’s unnerved while taking driving lessons from a bitter, racist, and damaged instructor (a wonderful Eddie Marsan), as antisocial as Poppy is trusting and open.
As the critic Harold Rosenberg observed, Dostoevsky’s Myshkin is “less a dramatic figure than an edifying one,” and, in writingThe Idiot, the author was urgently seeking something beyond art—namely that which “man can be.” It would be unfair to burden the entertaining and occasionally glib Happy-Go-Lucky with such weighty intent, but, for all his reputation as a sour miserablist, Leigh has made some blatantly utopian movies—most obviously his paean to popular art, Topsy-Turvy, and, in a different register, the pro-choice passion playVera Drake.
More than a few critics were troubled by the unrealistically safe saline abortions performed byVera Drake‘s angelic outlaw heroine. But in opposing a criminal state, this warmhearted busybody embodied the promise of a more enlightened social order—the safe, reassuring abortionist of the future. So it is with the altruistic Poppy, whose adult devotion to education and occasionally expressed childish desire to fly seem to herald a further stage of human development.
Another Year observes four seasons in the lives of longtime married couple Tom and Gerri (the marvelous Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen); their 30-year-old bachelor son Joe (Oliver Maltman); and Gerri’s single, middle-aged work colleague Mary (Lesley Manville). A houseguest so frequent she’s practically family, Mary at first seems a harmless sad sack, drinking too much and bemoaning her failures in life and love. But as time passes, and summer gives way to fall, Mary’s depression grows, and her behavior becomes ever more erratic.
For all its undemonstrative realism, there are bold tones of expressionism to Another Year. They're present in the broader strokes of some of the acting – in the protective personae that Mary and Ken have created for themselves – and in the look of the winter section, where all warmth and colour are bled out of the visuals as the film contemplates death, loneliness and life's unhealed wounds.
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