It is always fascinating when a non-Christian artist captures with almost perfect clarity a Christ-like quality we believers often struggle to grasp. Such is the case with British director Mike Leigh's latest movie, Another Year, which, in its contemplative way, is one of the most gospel-reflective films to come along in years.
Tom (Jim Broadbent) and his wife Gerri (Ruth Sheen) possess a peace that passes the understanding of their unhappy friends who are drawn to them like moths to a flame. They work hard at jobs they enjoy, they put away plenty of money, and they take pleasure in simple things, like a nice glass of wine or a rich Italian sauce, without overindulging. Married for more than 30 years with a caring, successful adult son who is clearly the result of years of responsible parentage, they are a portrait of what comes from doing life right.
Forty-something, divorced, and living hand-to-mouth, Mary (Lesley Manville), Gerri's co-worker, is a portrait of what comes from doing life wrong. Self-pitying and narcissistic, she drinks too much, talks about herself incessantly (at a party she chatters at length about her new car before acknowledging a friend's new baby), and takes no blame for her problems. "People don't go around with a label saying I'm married, don't fall in love with me," Mary says defensively of her affair with a married man. "No," Tom replies, "they usually wear a ring."
Anyone in their right mind would want to avoid Mary. But Tom and Gerri not only don't avoid her, they invite her regularly into their home and try to include her in their lives. We discover this is a pattern with them when Tom's childhood friend, Ken, turns up drinking, smoking, and eating to such a degree it's obvious one of the three will soon kill him. Tom tries to bear his burdens, pressing Ken to commit to a guys-only hiking trip. When Ken declines, Tom asks, "What are we going to do then? Because you can't go on like this." [emphasis mine]. Tom also reaches out to people he may personally dislike. Though early in the movie he describes his brother (accurately) as an alcoholic deadbeat who's draining the life out of his hard-working wife, when that wife dies, Tom is the first to offer comfort.
The sad and angry sacks who surround Tom and Gerri have earned their misery, and in another kind of movie we might relish seeing them receive their just deserts. But Another Year (rated PG-13 for language) isn't interested in justice, it's interested in mercy. Mary's selfishness, envy, and gross attempts to seduce Gerri's son are appalling (sin tends to look pretty appalling when you focus an unapologetic lens on it), yet the desperate loneliness of her fallen state cries out for pity.
As Christians in a nation where sowing and reaping are so noticeably connected, it's easy to put qualifications on Christ's charge to love the lost. We're happy to give the charity of our money to the anonymous poor. But what about the charity of our compassion to the bum of a brother? What about the charity of our time to the socially graceless office-mate? Aren't these the people who should be first in line for our love-the self-centered, annoying, and undeserving? The people we were and sometimes still are?
Nothing Tom or Gerri says suggests any kind of personal faith, but their behavior, which speaks far louder than their few words, will look familiar to anyone who's read the New Testament. That said, reaching out is no guarantee of redemption, as the last, haunting scene shows. Some will confront the truth about their unhappiness and join the feast, some will continue to gnash their teeth in bitterness over the blessings they missed out on. Leigh is honest about this too.
With its slow movement and at times painful portrayal of human wretchedness, it would be hard to imagine a less fun time at the movies than Another Year, but it would also be hard to imagine a more worthwhile one.