Who's In It: Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, David Bradley, Imelda Staunton
The Basics: The latest film from Mike Leigh (Vera Drake and Happy Go Lucky) is a portrait of what happens to a group of London friends over the course of a year. So that means lots of glasses of wine, awkward dinners, quiet concern over their single son's lifestyle, gardening, other people's babies, nephews with anger issues, begrudgingly offering drunkards your spare room for the night, hastily-purchased automobiles, more wine, more gardening, funerals, and cheese sandwiches.
What's The Deal: Mike Leigh is a master of bringing awkward characters to life and making them sympathetic. He directs with such empathy and love, I always feel like he considers everyone in his scripts his friends. Even when they are screwing up, somehow I just get it--of COURSE Mary (Lesley Manville) got too drunk and was hitting on her best friend's son (Oliver Maltman). It's because she is SAD and just needs someone to snuggle the worry lines right out of her face. The performances he draws out of his actors seem to rise straight from the bottom of their hearts. Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent shine here as the rock solid couple that everyone wants to be--still in love, sharing common interests, and cooking arrabbiata sauce together every night. Somehow they avoid being annoying while all of the other characters stumble around them--with the most bumbling and heartbreaking being the aforementioned Mary. Lesley Manville's performance here is utterly breathtaking in a "massive automobile accident on the highway" kind of way. I could never take my eyes off her, even though I desperately wanted to.
More Intense Than 24: Jack Bauer, eat your heart out. From beginning to end, this movie had me on the edge of my seat wondering what kind of horrible, soul-crushing tragedy would befall the characters, a la "In The Bedroom." I kept thinking, "Oh man, this is it, right now they're having a barbecue, but someone is going to get hit by a train right after this, I just know it." Turns out, no. The ENTIRE movie is just a slow burn of the small, isolated, uncomfortable moments that make up a life. The British are masters of this kind of commentary.
And I'm Proud To Be An American: SPOILER! The marvelous Imelda Staunton shows up in the beginning of the film, playing a very unhappy woman. She goes to the doctor's office where Ruth works, states that she has insomnia, and stays tight-lipped when everyone tries to uncover the cause of it. Finally, she begrudgingly spits out that she wishes she had a different life but nothing ever changes. End scene. She disappears forever. THIS is why we came over to America, limeys! We want to obsess over how we FEEL and we want someone to tell us it's okay. Seriously, I heard that Paul Revere had post-traumatic stress disorder that was solved when he hugged it out with Samuel Adams.
When To Watch: After the holidays when you have your strength back. This is one of those films that isn't fun to watch, but every moment is endearing, wistful, and genuine. I saw no acting in this film. Only life.