Star rating – 6/10
Mike Leigh’s latest ensemble created film lets us into the lives and friends of Tom and Gerri, (played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) a happily married and contented middle aged couple in suburban London. It is told over four seasons, and we see them working on and harvesting the produce from their allotment as the film progresses. Tom is a geologist and Gerri is a counsellor in a medical centre.
There is an excruciatingly moving opening scene where the audience are put right into the middle of the searing pain of a woman, brilliantly played by Imelda Staunton, who goes to a doctor in Gerri’s practice due to severe insomnia, and is referred against her will to Gerri for a counselling session. Her problems, resulting in obvious deep seated unhappiness, are only hinted at, and we don’t come across her again. But this encounter sets the tone for the whole film.
Tom and Gerri seem to like to attract friends who are very needy, maybe this makes them feel wanted and better about themselves. I think Leigh wants us to ponder on the goodness of some people, and the cruelty of life for others. But the knowing looks between the couple when their friends are being a bit embarrassing, and the smug way in which they seem so satisfied with their lot in comparison engendered my anger with them, rather than warm to their saintliness.
Chief amongst their needy, fragile friends is Mary, who works in the same medical centre as Gerri, and from the off is obviously not coping well with life. Mary is portrayed fantastically accurately and with much empathy and insightfulness by Lesley Manville. She has not been lucky with men, seeming to pick unsuitable partners, and flirt with most of the men around her. She is also an alcoholic, but Tom and Gerri only encourage her to drive and even suggest she take passengers, including their son, when she is clearly drunk, which seems very irresponsible behaviour. Manville is totally believable as a lonely, fragile drunk, and deserves to get rewarded for her heartbreaking performance at Oscar time.
But this film is very hard to watch, with no moments of humour or light to relieve the deep shade that clouds the seasons as they pass. I think that the tone of smugness is unintentional, but for me it pervades the whole piece, and it is a lot less impactful for it.