In the 1980’s Mike Leigh developed a reputation as a crusader against Thatcherism, a sympathetic chronicler of working class lives. Whether such a reputation was deserved is a matter of some debate, what’s certain is that in his latest, Another Year the focus has shifted away from issues of class and class conflict as the great divider and onto the question of Emotional Intelligence as the fundamental determinant in quality of life. In a sense it’s a love letter to the middle-aged, socially conscious and, most importantly, emotionally literate London middle class.
The film’s central focus is Tom and Gerri whose large, well-appointed house and garden provide the backdrop to a series of personal crises. The couple fully conform to all the recent middle-class lifestyle clichés; they’re good in the kitchen and appreciate quality food and wine, love gardening and growing things in their allotment, are environmentally aware and charitable and supportive to their childlike and uneducated friends and family. The film takes place over a year with a number of characters introduced to act as a counterpoint to Tom and Gerri’s contentment. The characters are roughly divided into those who are getting it right, and who seem to be Southern and University educated, and those who are not.
With the exception of Tom (though his job is socially useful), the functional characters all work in the caring professions. Gerri, is a counsellor. Their son Joe is first seen helping an Indian family to avoid eviction, his bubbly new girlfriend, who immediately gets on with Tom and Gerri, works with stroke victims. The dysfunctional characters map roughly onto class and geographical divisions. Lesley Manville’s Mary is a desperate, scatter-brained semi-alcoholic who dresses like a woman twenty years her junior. Then there’s Ken, an obese, full blown alcoholic who stuffs down packets of crisps and swills cans of bitter on the train from Hull, talks with his mouth full and has to be lectured on his conservative attitudes toward the young by Tom and consoled by Gerri when he breaks down in tears. Finally there’s Tom’s family in the North, the unbelievably taciturn Ronnie and his volatile, aggrieved son Carl.
Certainly Another Year expresses many of the prejudices of the time. Firstly in its focus on property owning, its repeated stress on how enviable Tom and Geri’s home is (Mary has to live, horror of horrors, in a rented flat) especially the large and well equipped kitchen where Tom, the enlightened husband cooks Arrabiata for his wife. Ronnie’s is the only other house we see, a miserable grey terraced house that appears to have gone undecorated since the 1950s. Secondly in its focus on the atavistic and insanitary habits of the working class, their weight problems, poor dress sense, excessive drinking, lack of politesse and emotional and intellectual backwardness. All the working-class characters smoke. Tom and Geri are good people in that they tolerate all this and try to offer their friends and colleagues solutions to their problems. In this way the film, as with much of contemporary TV and Cinema represents the working class as childlike, in need of benevolent guidance. When Gerri castigates Mary for having disrupted the previous dinner party with her jealousy over Joe’s new girlfriend, she chastises her in the manner of a parent with an errant child “I’m not angry with you I’m just disappointed in you.” “You need to learn to take responsibility”. Mary readily tolerates this sanctimony in order to be allowed back into the family’s life and receive a cuddle from Gerri.
Another Year also presents us with a particularly recent conceptualization of what constitutes modernity. The problem with the British is that they are emotionally constipated, they can’t express themselves or connect with others at the start of the film Imelda Staunton is incapable of expressing what she would say to her insomniac daughter. This extends one of the most significant themes in recent British history: that the modern is less about structural changes to society and more about the interpersonal: being able to say “I love you”, ridding ourselves of the previous generations thriftiness and reserve. Our modernity will be expressed through emotionality and lifestyle: being more like Europeans and Americans, kissing and hugging friends, being positive, talking about our problems, eating well, being stylish, crying if we need to. We will consume, we will emote, but we will also care, this is being progressive. In Leigh’s latest film the middle-class stand as corrective to the working class, trying their best to drag it into the modern day, trying to get it to sort itself out, have a bit more self-respect, “take responsibility”. No doubt this appeals to the vanity, unconscious and otherwise of Leigh’s audience, but the idea that he’s a radical filmmaker of any kind is surely untenable after this