Dir: Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh’s new film sticks with his usual formula of using ordinary events to subtly convey extraordinary meaning. Brilliant ensemble acting, subtly moving characters and an unhurried narrative all make this masterful film far more than the sum of its parts. The story covers a year in the life of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), an almost-retired couple who are happily married and jointly devoted to their allotment, working on it in all the four seasons which the film is divided into. Their grown-up son is a legal professional, who seems to have inherited the best parts of his parents and is confidently on his way to finding the right girl.
Unfortunately, their friends have not been so lucky in love or life. They are a motley selection of alcoholic, overweight, depressed older people, living out lives filled with regret and rejection. Tom and Gerri welcome these people into their house, where the action is mostly set, with each season bringing a new crisis.
The most heart-wrenchingly desperate of them is Gerri’s co-worker Mary (Lesley Manville), a mutton-dressed-as-lamb manic flirt hiding her loneliness behind quips such as “you know me, I’m a glass-half-full kind of girl!”. Mary is a continuing train-wreck throughout all the seasons, and paints a picture just short of caricature of a sad old lady who never imagined she’d grow up alone.
This all may sound heartbreaking, but the film remains on the bittersweet side of tragedy, with the almost unassailable, serene happiness of Tom and Gerri helping to buffer the viewer against the gamut of life’s ills with which we are presented. There are some very beautifully shot moments, especially those of the allotment bathed in golden summer or being pounded with rain whilst Tom and Gerri hide in the shelter and giggle over tea. But the standout scene has to be a wintry funeral and the bad tempered aftermath, in which the awkwardness and pain is artfully captured amidst the snow and brick settings of the crematorium.
The warmness and gentle nature of this film swept me away, and the tragic moments were genuinely moving. Lesley Manville as the torturously needy Mary was perfect, a performance matched only by Ruth Sheen as the misty-eyed and gently chiding Gerri. What could seem an alarmingly long running time for a small ensemble drama seemed to just dissolve in the face of this film’s supreme pacing. Well-worth seeing, but beware if you’re already a bit teary. Or take tissues.
by Sarah Reeve