Review by © Jane Freebury
In less sensitive hands, this story of a married London couple and friends could have included some sex, a smattering of drugs and for good measure a spiteful, blazing row. There’s a brutal rant near the end from a young man in a walk-on, walk-off role, but his anger and resentment exits stage right.
This remarkable and at times painful study of loneliness and delusion is the work of director Mike Leigh, from whom we expect to see life in all its glorious ordinariness – a vision so under-represented on silver screen that it appears quite alien. Yes, his Naked was more mainstream, but Secrets & Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky, Life is Sweet and Vera Drake and most other work is about the small dramas of the everyday. Melodrama minus the histrionics.
There is a bit of boozing that gets things going. Not by the couple Gerri (Ruth Sheen) and Tom (Jim Broadbent) in the lead-up to a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf moment, but by two of their friends, Ken (Peter Wright) and Mary (Lesley Manville). Manville is in extraordinary form. Bear in mind that these actors workshopped their roles with Leigh before the cameras began to roll, and they are the authors of their characters too.
You get the feeling that Ken and Mary, both single, have been invited on the off chance they might get together, but Mary is repelled by Ken in his ‘more drinking, less thinking’ T-shirt, burdened by hopelessness and a big gut. She looks younger than her fiftysomething years and makes a pass at Gerri’s community lawyer son instead. It sadly leads to losing the affections of old friends in whose hospitality she has become accustomed to seek shelter from the disappointments of her life.
There is a danger, one supposes, that Tom and Gerri (that’s cute) could be seen as smug, as though they have no right to be happy and content. They are great cooks, and grow a lot of their food in the allotment we see them tending over the course of the film, from spring through to winter – code for being grounded.
Instead it becomes clear that their nervy, vivacious friend Mary unmasked is just like the depressed and despondent Imelda Staunton character we saw in the first scene, before she disappeared from view. It is hard to understand how the unworldly, self-absorbed Mary had been a friend of Tom and Gerri’s, who had seen so much of the world, made the most of the opportunities, and now find contentment and fulfilment in late middle age.
But that’s for you to judge. Mike Leigh doesn’t sit in judgement. He offers his characters up gently and kindly, and leaves the rest to us.
In a capsule: A subtly nuanced, brutally honest study contrasting the lives of an older married couple with several of their long-term unmarried friends. From Mike Leigh, that master storyteller of ordinary life, it looks at the human cost of a life of missed opportunities.