No House of Mirth

Like Mike Leigh’s last film, 2008’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Another Year” centers on a charismatic, critically acclaimed female performance. The similarities don’t end there.

Indeed, the two films are mirror images, investigating the mysteries of personality from opposite perspectives.

“Happy-Go-Lucky” tracked a woman whose joviality compared favorably with her driving instructor’s raging misanthropy. “Another Year” establishes the happiness of a married couple in their 60s as a contrast to the desperation of almost everyone around them. While “Happy-Go-Lucky” accented the contentedness, “Another Year” is interested in those unable to find joy.

The unhappiness too often forced in Mike Leigh’s latest

“Another Year” takes place over the course of a year, as its title suggests. It’s divided into four sections, each representing one of the seasons. In spring, Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a medical counselor, and her husband Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geologist, have dinner with Mary (Lesley Manville). Mary, who works as a secretary in the same office as Gerri, gets drunk and complains about her unsatisfying love life.

In summer, Tom’s friend Ken (Peter Wight) takes the train down from Hull to visit the couple. He’s unhappy with his obese, aging body and his job, yet unwilling to retire. The next day, Mary arrives for a barbecue, where she flirts with Gerri’s son Joe (Oliver Maltman), even though he is much younger than she.

In autumn, Mary, Joe, Gerri, and Tom have a contentious dinner with Joe’s girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez). In winter, the family attends the funeral of the wife of Tom’s older brother.

Leigh’s work has often been compared to John Cassavetes’ films, but “Another Year” suggests he’s drawn the wrong lessons from the American director. Both directors’ films have been mistaken for off-the-cuff improvisations. With Cassavetes, hyper-naturalistic performances concealed the artifice of his scripts and his ambivalent attraction to a genre approach to filmmaking.

Leigh, who writes his scripts after extensive rehearsals with his cast, seems simultaneously attracted and repulsed by melodrama. At his best, these warring impulses create a productive tension, but in “Another Year,” they produce a flat script that mechanically sets up a series of conversations, usually taking place over meals, as if they were action movie set pieces.

The film feels like a succession of acting-class exercises in which, for instance, a couple comes home to find that a friend has invited herself into their house for a conversation with a grieving relative.

Manville’s performance has been widely praised, but it oversells the desperation of Mary’s life. At her first conversation with Gerri, Mary talks about valuing her garden, apartment, and independence. One doesn’t have to be a radical feminist to see that Leigh’s setting her up for a fall, especially when he keeps cutting to shots, taken from Mary’s point-of-view, of a handsome, middle-aged man sitting across the restaurant. Her hopes are dashed when a woman joins him. It won’t be the first time something like this happens to her.

Mary’s desires are always directed toward the wrong person, and a used car she buys turns into a disaster. The film rests on the borderline of dark comedy; one never feels really comfortable laughing at Mary, but Leigh is clearly encouraging the audience to do so.

In the current awards season, acting like you’re on crack, literally or figuratively, seems to be valued over more subtle work. Manville’s performance fails to bring out any nuances missing from the script or direction. In fact, she constantly twitches as though she’s just chugged a quadruple espresso or two. No wonder the National Board of Review gave her a prize as 2010’s best actress.

I was ready to dismiss “Another Year” entirely until “winter” rolled around. Suddenly, the film had a look that perfectly matched its mood. Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope create a somber, funereal atmosphere. The tone is closer to Ingmar Bergman than Todd Solondz.

Manville dials down the histrionics considerably, finally granting her character a modicum of dignity. “Another Year” no longer feels so cruel or condescending.

This turnaround isn’t enough to completely salvage it, but it turns it from Leigh’s worst film into an interesting, honorable failure.

Complete Information:

ANOTHER YEAR

Directed by Mike Leigh

Sony Pictures Classics

Opens Dec. 29

Angelika Film Center

18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St.

angelikafilmcenter.com

Lincoln Plaza. Cinemas

1886 Broadway at 63rd St.

lincolnplazacinema.com

More from Around NYC