Friday, July 15, 2011
Wisdom Is Mystery
At the end of Another Year, a Mike Leigh movie that came out last year but I just stumbled across this week, there's a moment of pure and devastating melancholy: Mary (played by Lesley Manville), a working-class friend of a complacent and cozy middle-class couple Tom and Gerri (played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Steen), is sitting at the couple's dinner table, staring off into space while the rest of the table, including Tom and Jerry and their son and his new girlfriend, chat. "Chat" in this case is a listing of all the travels they have done, all the greatnesses they have accomplished. Leigh's camera slowly pans around the table, the chitchat filling the air like confetti, and when Mary finally comes into focus her face enters your consciousness like something primordial, something so real you automatically flinch. At this moment she is either at the beginning or the end of a downward spiral. The movie dramatizes her confusion and desperation in a one-year arc in which she grows more and more dependent on Tom and Gerri's upper-middle-class comforts.
Another Year, although it focuses on the lives of a jovial social-worker and her geologist husband, is really a character study of someone who is lost without a lot of hope of ever finding out why. Manville inhabits Mary body and spirit: she uses a language of stutters and gestures to show us how eager Mary is to break free from her habit of loneliness and desperation, and yet she can only stir herself up into a frenzy that finds no release. Manville is masterful in the movie. Her acting is all in, and yet Mary is not an overacted stereotype. She's a living breathing poem of what can go wrong in your life if you're not very very careful.
"Very very careful" is the best description of Tom and Gerri. As played by Steen and Broadbent, they are a lovely, loving couple whose security and self-satisfaction is assured: they garden together, he cooks her gourmet dinners while she talks about her social-worker woes. Mary's desperation finds shelter in their suburban oasis, but eventually the two tire of her, and at the end their carefulness somehow becomes Mary's doom. Mary's need to insert herself into their perfection damns her to being ex-communicated. Her only solace is downing a bottle of white win to soften the blow of her own mistakes.
This is a movie about social class without overtly choosing sides. You understand the creature comforts and condescension involved in the lives of Tom and Gerri. They are fine, upstanding citizens after all. You also understand Mary's need to be a part of their upstandingness, as well as her unspoken hurt and anger that she is not truly "one of them." Gerri and Mary work together at a hospital. Mary processes paperwork, and Gerri, as a counselor, creates it. Their connection is found at work, and as they carry that connection outside class enters into their relationship without being spoken: it's just in the way they deal with one another -- in the way Jerri seems to completely understand Mary will never change, and in the way Mary seems to completely understand she needs help to break away from her self-imposed crises.
But guess what? The help's not free.
Toward the end, Mary confesses to Gerri that she needs to talk to someone seriously about her life. Gerri lets her know she can refer to a professional.
"No," Mary says. "I need to talk to you."
Gerri lets her know that she does not think this wise. It wasn't a friendship they had after all, it seems: Mary seems to have been a kind of charity case for Gerri, an adopted, working-class "friend." As soon as Mary starts getting on her nerves, Gerri offers professional intervention as a way out for both of them.
Another Year lets us in on secrets about class and humanity most movies steer to miss: wisdom to Gerri is a referral to a professional counselor who will use canned questions and forms to "see what the matter is." Wisdom to Mary is something mysterious -- something far beyond her reach.