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Vol. LXV, No. 10
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
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DVD Review

Challenging the Academy: The Oscar Should Have Gone to Lesley Manville

Stuart Mitchner

…it’s a film about hearts and minds and heads and souls. The stuff of life. It means something to everybody the world over because all of those things touch all of our lives wherever you live. We all need love, crave love

Lesley Manville, on Another Year

Having been warned by doctors that cringing is harmful to my health, I usually avoid watching the Academy Award festivities. I have a low tolerance for the glitzy overkill, the scripted jokes, and all those nauseating musical flourishes and fanfares when the envelope-openers are announced and again when the winners are named. Worse still are the politically motivated or simply thoughtless misjudgments like the major oversight this column is about, and for that reason I thought it only fair to watch at least some of Sunday night’s big show. And to be honest, the hour or so I saw of it wasn’t all that bad. I experienced no major cringing fits, though it was touch and go when James Franco turned up as Marilyn Monroe.

As for the Academy’s judgments, with the one glaring exception I’m addressing here, most of the high-end 2010 Oscars went to the right people, notably 73-year-old onetime stammerer David Seidler who accepted the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for The King’s Speech with his quip about being “a late bloomer.” Nominated in the same category for Another Year was Mike Leigh, who has had a smattering of Academy recognition, one Best Picture nomination (Secrets and Lies) and two for Best Director (Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake). Leigh’s thorny, difficult, slice-of-gritty-life films are not the sort that ring bells in Tinseltown. It’s fair to say that some moviegoers may find them as cringe-inducing, for different reasons, as I find Oscar night, and Another Year is no exception. In 1999, however, Leigh performed a stunning tour de force with TopsyTurvy, one of the great films of the 1990s, for which he won both Best Director and Best Picture — from the New York Film Critics. From the Academy, nothing, not so much as a nomination. What film won Best Picture that year? Gladiator. This year no one was surprised that the Best Actress Oscar went to Natalie Portman for Black Swan. The only problem is that the best actress wasn’t even in the running.

It’s Mary’s Movie

As Mary in Mike Leigh’s film journey through the four seasons, Lesley Manville is in a class by herself. When she tells a Hollywood interviewer that Another Year is “about hearts and minds and heads and souls” and “the stuff of life,” she’s also giving expression to the stuff of her performance, the hopeful highs and desperate lows of a lonely middle-aged woman who is too pretty for her own good. All her fading beauty does is lead her astray. It’s not pleasant watching Manville bare her soul. It hurts, it’s embarrassing, and sometimes it’s ugly. In the last scene, the last shot, bereft of the glow of good looks she had in the spring and summer, Mary is looking helplessly out at us from an abyss of isolation at the dinner table with some people she mistook for family.

The family in question is headed by Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), the complacently settled husband and wife who would seem to occupy the center of the film. Right away you have to wonder what made Leigh tag this almost too comfortable pair with the names of a cartoon cat and mouse. The mildly comic aspect of the coincidence is acknowledged now and again as part of the surface banter that passes for society with this couple.

Tom’s a geologist, Gerri’s a counselor at the medical clinic where Mary’s an administrative secretary who occasionally finds a refuge in Tom and Gerri’s happy home. When she gets potted, they put her up for the night in their grown son’s old bedroom. She’s gently, affectionately patronized for her flakiness, her follies, most notably and amusingly her purchase of a little red car (an ongoing disaster). Thus the aging, pretty, lovelorn woman has reason to feel that she’s “one of the family,” though she fails to see Tom and Gerri exchanging glances and rolling their eyes and she doesn’t have sense enough to fathom the consequences of aiming her love-lights at Joe, their charmless 30-year-old unmarried son (Oliver Maltman).

While each of the film’s four seasons begins with shots of the industrious couple farming their allotment, it’s Mary who becomes each season, drunkenly hopeful in the spring, still warmly engaged in her doomed quest for love in summer, sent on a downward spiral by a rival in fall, and then ravaged, stripped bare in winter.

Winter Moment

Some scenes or sequences are so evocative, so close to the heart of the human condition, and so movingly played that you can imagine the director shaping the entire film around them. Such a scene is Mary’s wintry encounter with Tom’s older brother Ronnie (David Bradley), who has come to stay with Tom and Gerri after the death of his wife. If you’ve ever experienced a winter, or even a spring or autumn, in England, you will feel for Mary huddled shivering in the damp chill with a cup of tea in one hand and a cigarette in the other after showing up unannounced at the door of the home where she has always been welcomed, sheltered, treated like family, only to find a grim stranger there, suspicious of her, reluctant to let her in. Up to this point you may have recoiled from Mary’s desperate neediness, shuddered at her transparent pursuit of a relationship with the son, but as she stands there, bent and shivering, trying to convince the big, stone-faced man blocking the door that she belongs, that she isn’t merely intruding, you may find yourself not only feeling for the character but loving the actress. Mary is at the point of actually showing the man some personal identification when he decides to let her in. From then on, every move she makes, every tenuous word she speaks, has a pathetic beauty, as when she asks his permission to make tea for them. He’s all but mute, deadpan, remote in his discomfort, he’s not giving her anything, and when the halting travesty of conversation she attempts begins to reach him, arousing a few random glimmers of civility or interest in this human monument of melancholy, she’s so encouraged that she actually offers to drive him back to his home in Derby. By now you know Mary well enough to appreciate how perfectly in character it is for her to make such a pathetically irrational offer.

The winter sequence is one of the most wrenching and true that Mike Leigh has ever directed, with the stoic Ronnie the perfect counterweight to the pathos of Mary, the lost soul, shyly making small talk about the fact that he still rolls his own cigarettes and asking him if he liked the Beatles way back when (as she should be able to tell, he’s nearly a generation older: he was into Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.)

What happens when Tom and Gerri return to find Mary in the house is the second of two devastating blows she suffers, the first having occurred in the fall when she has to endure the shock and humiliation of seeing Joe with Katie, the earnest, cheerful, relentlessly sociable girl (Karina Fernandez) he’s clearly going to marry. The cruelest blow comes in the winter sequence when Tom and Gerri show up, surprised and clearly unhappy to see her. Tom merely stares, but Gerri, the kindly counselor, extinguishes her old friend with a look followed by the devastating question: “What are you doing here?” And then, gently but fatally: “This is my family,” meaning for Mary to understand that she’s not part of it and never has been.

As painfully true as this terrible rebuff rings, it’s hard to believe that someone as professionally attuned to human need as Gerri could be so cruel, and some critics have faulted Leigh for being too unsparing (Gerri does soften long enough to give the uninvited guest a hug). In any case, the painful eloquence of Lesley Manville’s performance redeems everything. It also presents a challenge to the tolerance of an audience looking for something easy and obvious, which may be one reason she was denied a nomination by the members of the Academy as well as the New York Film Critics. At least the National Board of Review got it right this year by naming her Best Actress of 2010.

The quote at the top, and the images of Mary in the glow of spring and Mary in the winter of her discontent, are both from a December 31, 2010 interview on DVDs of other Leigh/Manville films such as Topsy Turvy, Secrets and Lies, and All or Nothing are available at the Princeton Public Library.

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