Demonstrating the importance of family and friendship certainly isn’t anything we haven’t seen before in films. It’s a common theme, and the subject of a countless number of dramas. However, in Another Year director Mike Leigh creates an incredibly personal, sometimes riveting look at the importance of friendship and family. What’s more, he manages to really show the limits to which those bonds can be stretched. One genuinely award-worthy performance amongst a superb cast, wonderful dialogue, and touching moments make up for some slow pacing in Leigh’s latest.

Another Year is about a married couple approaching their retirement years, and their collection of eccentric friends and family. Spanning a single year in their lives, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) spend their time hearing out their friends’ various heartaches and growing pains. Each season is represented by a particular event, albeit a barbecue or a relative’s funeral. Other characters come and go, but none are as persistent as Gerri’s friend Mary (Lesley Manville).  Mary is the element that ties all of the year’s events together by being present in some capacity. Tom and Gerri’s son Joe (Oliver Maltman) shows up a few times, and Tom’s own jovial friend and stoic brother make brief appearances as well. As the year goes on we see the family’s ups and downs, such as Joe finding a girlfriend and Mary purchasing a car. By the time winter rolls around, the characters have become quite engaging, and a rather serious shift in tone provides a memorable finale to a year in the lives of Tom and Gerri.

Another Year is driven by the strength of its characters and the talent behind them. It’s not a plot driven film, but rather an examination of these people’s lives. What makes Another Year rather successful is Lesley Manville’s performance.  Manville’s turn as the distressed Mary will captivate you completely. Audiences will be torn feeling both sorry for Mary and resenting her as she awkwardly drinks her way through the year desperately yearning for some form of companionship. Her fear of being alone is something everyone can relate to in some capacity. Her more detestable personality traits will probably remind you of someone you knew at some point in your life. Manville positively shines as Mary and as the character that contributes much of the progress of the film she’s utterly remarkable.
While Mary’s character is a bit of an unfortunate, the rest of the principal cast is quite endearing. Both Tom and Gerri are warm and amiable and do a terrific job of displaying the quality of being good friends, while being understandably strained by the depreciating situations that surround them. Joe (Maltman) brings a lot to his scenes as well; he captures both the warmth of caring of his parents but still retains his own youthful cynicism. It’s fun to watch his interactions with his parent’s friends as he parts with some very witty and funny observations. Joe is also easy to empathize with when his frustrations over Mary’s constant intrusions and his own tactless relatives test his patience.

Where Another Year may not appeal to everyone is in its pacing. The beginning of the year is slow and audiences may feel more like they’re visiting their own neighbors rather than watching a film. However, the investment pays off as the year progresses. When the story turns more serious, there’s tangible impact during the climactic events. Mary unravels as the weight of her own problems pushes down on her and a thoughtless nephew’s presence at a funeral creates unwanted tension. The film just becomes more enjoyable when it allows the characters to show their true colors rather than having them sitting idle and bantering over glasses of wine and tea. These scenes will really reward audiences who have surrendered themselves to the characters.

Another Year is a film that’s worth seeing based on the strength of its characters alone. Audiences who find themselves a fan of dramas in general will find plenty to connect with in Mike Leigh’s newest as it manages to touch on a wide spectrum of emotions. However, the slow pacing and a little bit of early tedium will invariably turn some people off.  That being said, Lesley Manville’s performance is certainly one to remember in a year full of standout roles and she makes the audience’s investment into the characters all the more rewarding by the end. Another Year is a fine example of certain instances where a talented cast driving deep, relatable characters can carry the weight of a slower story.

Another Year opens in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 29th