Skip to main content

Contrary Gardening



The British film director Mike Leigh, as I understand it, has a reputation for depressing British naturalistic dramas (at least in HMC discourse). Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), with its ebullient heroine, Poppy, traversing a shabby London accompanied by wind instruments, had its frightening moments (Poppy in a car with a mentally unstable driving instructor) but resolved itself with Poppy and her friend swanning around in a rowboat.
Another Year (2010) seemed more of a gamble.

We were promised a cheerful movie with a bit of melancholy. It began hopefully. As the title suggests, the film is structured by the seasons. Spring begins - after a medical interview with a grim-faced woman (Imelda Staunton) who has trouble sleeping and cannot remember ever being happy - with a long-married couple working peacefully in an allotment. The gardening threads through the film and provides a competent metaphor for a script dealing with the relations between people. At the nexus of the web of relationship is Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geologist, and his stork-eyed counsellor wife Gerri (Ruth Sheen), and it is a happy marriage. Their home seems a happy beacon of light and warmth as they offer hospitality to friends whose lives require, one might say, pruning. Mary, a single woman who works with Gerri, talks and drinks too much, and vibrates with bizarre anxious energy. She falls asleep, maudlin, in Tom and Gerri’s son’s room, with the couple looking on, sharing pregnant glances. Tom’s friend Ken from Yorkshire drinks and eats too much and cries into his hands.

But towards the end of the film the couple’s influence, which seems benign and bettering at the beginning, seems ennabling and manipulative. In the last scene of the last section, Winter, Mary intrudes uninvited after offending the family, and shivering, blinking, and spiritually disintegrated, begs Gerre for a former friendship. Gerri withholds austerely and Mary looks like less of an inconvenience than a housedog. She has been trained to rely on Gerri and Tom and, without their benevolence, is lost and utterly alone. Mary, insomniac and unhappy, is the Staunton-character, and the narrative has come full-circle. Only, instead of Gerri as healer (she treated ‘Staunton’), she is an enabler, a sanctimonious observer who speaks calmly and parentally: ‘I’m not angry with you, Mary. Just disappointed.’ The film ends with Mary’s weary and wary face twitching imperturbably as the family discusses their traveling adventures, leaving Mary outside the enchanted circle, to look on with – no longer envy – but a dying, wintering, reiterated sense of aloneness.

The possible romanticism present in Happy-Go-Lucky was undone in Another Year. The former trumpeted the enchanted freedom of an energetic single in Camden; the latter featured a single – and other (self-)marginalized characters – obliterated by the happy exclusion of a couple whose influence wavers uncomfortably between friendship and condescension. Leigh’s film didn’t leave me comforted, but sad, cold, melancholic, and impressed.

Comments

Anonymous said…
I love reading your posts. I was googling Mike Leigh's films, after having watched Happy Go Lucky, Career Girls and Another Year in the past week, and have been desperately trying to get my hands on similar toned movies. For some reason, I decided to check if you had updated, and there was a post on Mike Leigh.


It must be a magical day :)
Ian Wolcott said…
"Stork-eyed" is just right.

I thought Another Year was a withering, grim movie.

Popular posts from this blog

More Moomins

A friend once said that the thing she loved about Japan was that the Japanese loved every season, and made a great effort to celebrate holidays and seasons with specific rituals. As a person who enjoys holidays, and who finds meaning participating in the ritual of the Christian year, I feel a kinship with the Japanese. As humans, we respond to the larger, uncontrollable mysteries of life with stories, with food, with a renewed sense of connection to each other and to the world around us.

It is easy, with the early darkness and the frost on our windshields and the necessity of coats and thicker socks, to complain about the dying of the year and the coming of winter.

Here is a must-read this time of year: Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley in November. Where her other Moomin books have been characterized by happy bohemianism and quirky, midsummer adventures, this book is not afraid to deal with the stark and empty season that comes once a year.

It is raining steadily upon the tall dark trees. D…

Blast-beruffled plumes

I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.



Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.

So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
Th…

Cassandra at the Wedding - Dorothy Baker

The perfect airplane read for a person en route to a wedding, this tautly written 1962 novel about a woman falling apart, coming home to her family’s ranch to derail her twin sister’s wedding. That’s the summary – but obviously it’s about so much more: about the nature of love and obsession, about identity and the self.

Cassandra Edwards, named for the doomed wailer at the gates of Troy, is a student at Berkley, an “Existentialist-Zen-Marxist, Freudian branch. Deviation, rather.” The reader is fully aware from the beginning that Cassandra feels antagonistically about the wedding – she anticipates duties of “tak[ing] over the bouquet while [Judith] received the ring, through the nose or on the finger, wherever she chose to receive it…” She purposefully gets the groom’s name wrong. She plans to stage a “last-minute rescue.”

The isolated family ranch the Edwards family as a self-sufficient unit – emotionally and intellectually. Her alcoholic father, a retired skeptical philosopher who act…