by Allan Fish
(UK 2010 130m) DVD1/2
p Georgina Lowe d/w Mike Leigh ph Dick Pope ed Jon Gregory m Gary Yershon art Simon Beresford
Jim Broadbent (Tom), Ruth Sheen (Gerri), Lesley Manville (Mary), Oliver Maltman (Joe), Peter Wight (Ken), Phil Davis (Jack), Imelda Staunton (Janet), Martin Savage (Carl), David Bradley (Ronnie), Karina Fernandez (Katie), Ralph Ineson, Edna Doré,
There’s much to be read into that title; another year, same old same old. Seasons come and go, nothing changes. There’s always been a sense of that to Mike Leigh’s world, his own little microcosm of middle class suburbia. Another year, another film. In some ways it was a brave new world for Leigh, after the premature death of his long-time producer collaborator Simon Channing-Williams and it was his first in ‘Scope format. In all other respects, it’s Leigh as we know and love him, but as he grows older, we grow older with him, and as I do so one is left as disappointed as his characters.
These characters are familiar, the husband and wife happy with each other but not with those around them; he works studying clay around the world, she as a counsellor at a local practice. Their son Joe is a solicitor and keeps himself to himself, but finally brings round his girlfriend Katie. Gerri’s work colleague Mary, increasingly clingy, upsets the apple cart when it becomes clear that, despite her being old enough to be his mother, she has a ridiculous attachment to Joe. Then there’s Tom’s brother, Ronnie, who’s stricken with grief after the death of his wife, and Ken, an overweight single man who, lonely himself, won’t retire because it’s all he has in life.
It seems churlish to pick holes in Leigh when he is such a master of what he does and the level and depth of observance is as keenly seen as ever; the film is listed here after all. Nor is it the sense of déjà vu about his films that irritates. Yes, he always looks at similar themes and uses the same actors over and over, but both Bergman and Ozu did exactly that. With Bergman and Ozu, though, one was left with a sense of completion, of satisfaction. One admires and loves Leigh for his commitment to his personal vision, but perhaps he has come to embody a sort of perfunctory excellence. There’s a certain laziness to his proceedings that seems inescapable.
Take a look at that cast. Bergman and Ozu may have used the same repertory of players, but they made each performance unique, despite the inherent similarities. It’s impossible to find a fault with any of the performances, and yet there are niggles. For one, Staunton’s entire part has no apparent purpose except to show that life is, as Kyoko Kagawa said famously in a certain Ozu film, disappointing. Wight is always welcome, but there’s not one part of his character that isn’t predictable. Sheen basically plays the wife role once played by Alison Steadman, while one could easily imagine Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan popping up at the allotment.
All of which is not to say that the performances are not exemplary, as Broadbent and Sheen could hardly be anything else, but the fact that neither was nominated at any of the awards evenings does tell its own story. Manville had the showiest part, a leaping thyroid of a character, equal parts tragic and ridiculous, and played it expertly. But where were the surprises? It’s perhaps for this reason that the performance that resounds the most is that of Bradley as the grieving, monosyllabic Ronnie, as docile as one conditioned by shock therapy. By the end, one is left dangling, like a tea bag on a string in a cup waiting for the hot water that never comes. Characters that can’t be arsed pretending their life is worthwhile; “how was your day?” Tom asks, “disappointing” Gerri replies, “pass the parsley.” It’s magnificent, brilliant in the final fade out to silence and black, yet at times enough to make you scream. If only Leigh would take on some new collaborators; after all, he’s never worked with Miranda Richardson, with Bill Nighy, with Ian Holm, Ray Winstone, Samantha Morton or Peter Mullan, or looked beyond the bounds of Greater London. That I wish for more is recognition of his worth; he’s capable of more.