There's Nothing Tragic About Being Fifty. Not Unless You're Trying to be Twenty-Five.
Mary is the through-line of the film, the unifier. Despite being the same age as Tom, Gerri, and Ken, Mary lives life as if she is a woman half her age. She drinks, dresses, and acts like a twenty-five year old. Disillusioned by a life that has brought a low income, a divorce, and other romantic pratfalls, Mary attempts to dull the pain of living by habitually refilling her stemware, abusing Tom and Gerri's hospitality, and attempting to seduce the unresponsive Joe. We can feel her loneliness in the way she clutches her wine glass with her hands, boasting a fresh coat of purple nail polish. We can see her pain, betrayed by a look of disappointment, the shield of fresh mascara not protecting her internal suffering.
Mary's actions, as the film ventures through the passing of another year (there are four sections, marked by the seasons of the year), become increasingly desperate and frustrating. In almost any other film, we would be asked to hate her. In one scene, she is incredibly rude to Joe's new girlfriend (Karina Fernandez), making her introduction to Tom and Gerri an awkward affair. Yet, Leigh's characterization and Manville's performance ask us to empathize, just as Tom and Gerri do, with the tribulations that life has dealt her. As Gerri tells Mary, when introduced to Ken, "Life's not always kind, is it?" Yet, Mary cannot see her own suffering in Ken's loneliness. To do so would be to admit defeat, to admit the passing of time and the disappointment that life can bring.
As Leigh's film testifies, aging brings great pain and small joys. Funerals, divorces, and financial troubles are not evenly balanced by a midsummer golf match, a friendly barbecue, or a cigarette in the chill of winter. Life is rarely kind but, those small moments and our relationships with friends and, in the case of Tom and Gerri at least, spouses, make them tolerable. Appropriately, much of Leigh's 129 minute film is quiet, bittersweet, and relatively undramatic (at least, in the typical sense of the word with regard to film). Tom does not have an affair with Mary, Mary does not break up Joe's newly formed relationship with his adorable girlfriend, nor does Ken end up with his female equivalent. The most Leigh offers us are fleeting moments of self-realization which, in their own way, bring closure.
Leigh's film, like most of the acclaimed films this winter (The King's Speech, Black Swan) is particularly strong when it comes to the performances. Broadbent and Sheen play Tom and Gerri as a vivdly realized couple, sharing a kitchen together with the same enjoyment as a garden or a bedroom. Manville is, as already described, phenomenal as the wounded Mary. Yet, unlike The King's Speech (2010) or Black Swan (2010), the performances are furthered by a nuanced script, the product of Leigh's close work with his actors (allegedly, Leigh worked with the actors for five months before filming began to define the characters and their world). The end result is not only portrait of middle-class British life that boasts an an uncanny verisimilitude but one of my favorite films of the year.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, Senses of Cinema, and Studies in Comics. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.
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