If the indie heartbreaker Blue Valentine is the worst-case scenario when it comes to love and marriage, then British director Mike Leigh’s rueful, tender Another Year is the best-case scenario. Leigh offers a perspective rarely seen in movies, one of an ordinary marriage in all its shaggy, frumpy glory. The film’s middle-aged London couple Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) have carved out a wonderful life for themselves, with satisfying jobs (Gerri as a counselor and Tom as a geologist) and the love of friends and family. In their free time they cook, entertain, and garden in a community plot that Leigh uses as a metaphor for time’s passage and the fruitful bounty of life that the pair embraces. Like all good couples, they seem predestined to be together. And they acknowledge their gifts.

Another Year is a life-affirming portrait of a harmonious marriage and the emotional salve it offers in a cruel world. Tom and Gerri are each other’s shelter from the harsh reality of old age, loneliness, and sadness that plagues their friends. While their friends resist growing old, Tom and Gerri settle into it and accept it, joking about their middle-age spread and faulty hearing.

Fair warning to singles: As gorgeous as Another Year is in its celebration of a very ordinary, but still delightful, marriage, it’s a gut-churner when it comes to its depiction of single life. Within this story of people who have found love is a tragedy of people who suffer miserably for the want of it. While Tom and Gerri gather their tomatoes and cook curries in their light-filled kitchen, their single friends suffer unbearable pangs of loneliness. Tom and Gerri’s college chum Ken (Peter Wight), who visits for the weekend, lives alone, drinks too much, smokes too much, and could stand to lose a few (20) pounds. He’s jolly and wry until the drink kicks in and he turns melancholy and angry, raging against the young with all of their privileges, furious that his day in the sun is over.

But Gerri’s work colleague Mary (a fantastic Lesley Manville, who deserved an Oscar nod for her performance) has the worst of it. She’s a slim, pretty, middle-aged secretary whose eye is, unfortunately, drawn to far younger men who tend to mock and rebuff her advances. Mary is a fascinating conundrum, shrill and domineering but also bird-like and frail. She’s the kind of woman another filmmaker with a less kind heart might dismiss as an airhead, a silly trifle. But one of the most profound dimensions to Another Year is the extraordinary care Leigh takes in developing Mary’s character and letting us see the tormented woman beneath the frivolous creature she initially seems to be. Mary has been hurt before, and over the year-long course of the film she’s hurt in many other small and large ways. In a scene at the tail end of a homey dinner with Tom and Gerri, Mary, drunk and slurring her words, ticks off all of the injustices of her life: no man, no money, no future. “It’s not fair,” is her favorite refrain and it’s both self-pitying and absolutely true. It isn’t fair. Life has been unkind. You feel her desperation, her sense of hopelessness about what awaits her. Leigh holds his camera on her face, hooded eyes darting about, shoulders hunched, and you feel your heart ache for this woman. It’s an unpleasant thing to grow old, but far more unpleasant when you’re alone and haven’t taken the time to enrich yourself or pursue hobbies or interests.

Leigh has always had an expert hand with character. His early British TV drama Abigail’s Party remains a classic portrait of another zany, complicated woman. But he may have outdone himself with Another Year, whose characters and dilemmas feel more real than real, from the way Tom’s more provincial, working-class brother responds to his wife’s death to the irritated, even vicious way Mary reacts to Ken’s advances. Leigh allows his characters all of their idiosyncrasies and ugliness too. And you can’t help but love them for the simple fact of their humanity, flaws included.

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