A tale of family ties and the pain of single life, Mike Leigh’s new film "Another Year" is high in the running to win the British director a third prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
In broad strokes, the story does not sound hugely dramatic: a year in the lives of a happily married, middle-aged, middle-class couple, Tom and Gerri, played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen.
But Leigh shows that the slow-burning family dramas which have made his name are all about finding the passion and pain in people’s supposedly ordinary lives.
"People are not boring — life is fascinating," he said. "They’re boring if you let them be boring."
Among the all-British cast of Leigh regulars, Lesley Manville’s compelling performance as Tom and Gerri’s insecure single friend Mary also makes the actress a likely prize-winner at the Cannes awards on May 23.
As the seasons roll by, Mary drinks her way through Tom and Gerri’s wine, clinging to them for comfort and rejecting the advances of their old friend Ken, a fellow lonely heart similarly fond of alcohol.
"She’s a rather fragile human being who’s not been handed the best destiny, she’s not had the best luck, especially with men," Manville said of her character, in an interview with AFP.
Leigh, 67, has already won awards at Cannes twice — the top Palme d’Or prize for "Secrets and Lies" in 1996 and the best director trophy for "Naked" in 1993 — and has been nominated for several Oscars.
Leigh was circumspect about the prospect of a third prize. "It would be great to win the Palme d’or twice, of course," he said. "But it probably won’t happen."
Manville refused to speculate on whether she might get the best actress prize.
Several critics poured praise on Leigh at a news conference after the initial screening, ahead of Saturday night’s red-carpet premiere at the Riviera town’s waterfront festival hall.
"Every time I make a film I try to do something completely different, but … whether I like it or not, ‘Another Year’ is in some ways an archetypal or typical Mike Leigh film," he told AFP.
"For me it’s about growing older, looking at how to deal with life as you get older, it’s about the good and the bad things about life."
He and Manville described the unusual method Leigh uses to create simple stories that draw their power not from special effects or fancy editing, but from powerful, truthful performances.
The director and cast spend months improvising to build the characters and devise the story before the cameras start rolling.
"I discover what the film is by embarking on the journey of making the film," not by using "the basic Hollywood language," he told AFP.
"I haven’t made any big blockbuster films with lots of equipment," Manville said. "What I’m best at and what I’m happiest doing is this kind of work."
The result for the audience is a sense that the characters’ lives extend beyond the start and finish of the film.
"I feel the audience needs to leave the cinema with work to do," said Leigh. "Something that is going to stay with you, and will not too easily be forgotten and dismissed, digested."
The final frame of the film is a masterpiece of non-verbal acting by Manville, as Mary listens to her friends enthusing about their exotic travels — her face a neurotic, ambiguous mask as she takes her umpteenth glug of wine.
"I know what I was thinking at those moments as Mary, but I’m not going to say, because most people I know who have watched it already have each had their own set of feelings," Manville told AFP.
"Everybody watches that very still, quiet moment in the film and everybody watching it is thinking this, this and this," she added. "It’s more important that people watch it and make their own conclusions."