Only saw this once upon initial release, so any thoughts are from memory. I don't think Leigh (who unethically credits himself as scriptwriter) has an argument per se
- much less an interest in excoriating a particular breed of people. (I think the film's chief strength is its observation of plausible human interaction - there's something deeply enthralling about it, because it's rarely ever present in cinema - what we normally get is the cinematic impression of interaction
, which I'm not necessarily against; I think it's normalised and accepted at this point, but whatever - that's another argument.)
to be something worth delving into here, though - hence the film's dramatic power - but I don't think it's an indictment of a petit bourgeois couple whose domestic contentment is their own business. Are we meant to begrudge Tom and Gerri their success and happiness? Why should we? Is their social status directly
linked to Mary's, i.e., have they directly
exploited Mary in order to get where they are, and is Mary's own relative instability a direct result of said exploitation? Though there'll no doubt be social factors at work here, I think on the vidence the film gives us (which is all we have to go on), the answer to this question is "no". Mary's continued invitation to and attendance at Tom and Gerri's home is in spite of their social statuses. I don't think any character here is meant to stand in for the class to which they belong; the film isn't some preposterous allegory on "middle-class guilt" like Caché
, for instance.
Part of the film's strength is its portrayal of an undeniably heartbreaking loneliness and depression - made all the more challenging to watch because it's the white elephant in the room. Are Gerri and Tom to patronise Mary, their friend, by extending and voicing sympathy/concern to her? Wouldn't doing so beget a hostile/defensive/violent reaction from her? After all, Mary shows little indication of actively seeking
help; her instinctive mechanism is to get drunk (that isn't a judgement, btw). Who are we to tell someone they "need help"? Mary's behaviour is "edgy", sure, but walking on eggshells would, in my view - on the evidence the film gives us - ultimately exacerbate her anxieties. She's already a bag of nerves, and at an age where being so is socially (and therefore domestically) unacceptable.
Mary clearly seeks Gerri's respect and approbation; but as I recall, Gerri chooses not to exploit this, even though she's clearly aware of it. If on the contrary she did exploit Mary's "need" to be mothered, I think she'd be an awfully stifling friend - the sort of smothering mother figure we might ordinarily expect of an artistic depiction of a middle-class woman (with her own neuroses, etc.). Speaking of which, Mary's mental instability and subsequent loneliness - or, just as crucially, her fundamental feeling of loneliness and therefore subsequent instability - may possibly be a result of her upbringing: her relationship with her mother, her actual or perceived abandonment, the crippling pressures of never-satisfied parental expectations... All of which would be accountable to her formative domestic upbringing, which would itself be socially accounted for.
I dunno, I'm just speculating in the absence of actual evidence in the film - which is why I'd point out the film's necessary limitations.
Is Mary the direct responsibility of Tom and Gerri? And if so, is it Gerri and Tom's responsibility to remind her of this? I would argue no on both accounts. You might argue there's a social responsibility to Mary and "people like her", but the film, as I said, would need a wider conceptualisation of events to point us toward any answers as to how. (I would recommend David Mercer and Ken Loach's two films, In Two Minds
(1967) and Family Life
(1971), as dramatic accounts of a stifling domestic life and the extent to which it might beget someone like Lesley Manville's Mary.)
I wrote elsewhere
on the film's depiction of human relationships, suggesting it would need a wider framework if it were to reconceptualise its material and account socially/historically for its characters' predicament.
The sentiments written about Archipelago – “tiny nuances of gesture and oblique conversation by which we, the British middle classes, negotiate our way through life, smothering unpleasantness in the process” – reminded me of one of my favourite films of 2010, Mike Leigh’s Another Year. Leigh’s film doesn’t necessarily “do” anything with its characters, much less account for them in class terms, but it does stand out for its emotional authenticity and committed performances, which give it an emotional charge even when nothing is happening. Sometimes, it’s encouraging to simply view on screen characters interacting convincingly with one another.
It’s encouraging, that is, but for lasting profundity, maybe it’s not enough. Another Year is one of those “observational” dramas that places its characters in an everyday setting and then watches their situation unfold. But it never genuinely challenges this situation; it seems more content to present it – not without complexity – and then allow the viewer to ponder any questions that might arise from it.
This point is key: though those viewers with an explicit interest in class and its artistic representations may well find in Another Year issues to discuss, Leigh’s film doesn’t ask any questions itself. It’s a brilliant portrayal of a certain group of people – and if you’ve ever spent time in the company of people like Mary, Tom, Joe and Gerri, you’ll know what I mean – but its fundamental aims limit what it can tell us about their existence. That is to say, of course, “it’s brilliant as it stands, but to be even better…”
Another Year would have to be a different film entirely to address further concerns; and Mike Leigh is not incapable of making such a work.