Possibly not the best choice, then, a Mike Leigh film. I was intrigued by the Imelda Staunton cameo at the beginning, and thought it was going to be a story about counselling. However, Imelda turns out to be a red herring, sadly, or perhaps a framing device. Her cameo appearance represents the professional life of the main protagonist, Gerri, a counsellor.
The four-seasons structure Leigh uses, around the life of an allotment (our allotted life, its circularity, its cyclicality) is a very old trope. It would shade into unbearable saccharine cliché, were it not that in Mike Leigh's hands, cliché itself is something to turn over in your hands, of which to scratch the surface, flake off a little dust.
The allotment gives Gerri and her husband Tom produce and pleasure all year round. They sit in their three-sided shed, drinking tea from a thermos and watching the rain come down, close together, monosyllabic. Tom is an geologist and engineer who loves his job, looking at London clay, and repairing the Victorian sewer system. Gerri loves her own work, and they have a grown son, Joe, who is as wry and self-effacing as his father, and who comes to visit them from time to time. Their kitchen is filled with comfortable pottery, wooden shelves, old Dutch tea and coffee drawers mounted on the wall (I'd kill for one, wherever did they get it?), plants everywhere. They are a happy family. Nothing much else to say — their contentment contains them.
This portrait, like a Vermeer, is unusual in its own right – for happiness and contentment are as dull as used shammy leather to others. Drama is usually produced through conflict or lack, so Leigh is inverting the dramatic norm simply by observing this couple nearing retirement.
As the film unfolds, however, we find that Leigh's preoccupation is precisely with duration versus drama. Tom and Gerri have longstanding friendships with Mary from Gerri's work, and Ken, an old friend of Tom's. The lives of these two individuals has not worked out so well. They are both single, semi-alcoholic, and desperately lonely. They visit Tom and Gerri at different times, and end up crying on their shoulders. The couple comfort them and do not judge. We find ourselves hoping that perhaps Mary and Ken will get together. When they finally meet, however, Ken's terrible neediness repels Mary.
The two climaxes of the film occur close together. Tom and Gerri's son brings home a girlfriend, who is immediately accepted into the clan. When Mary comes for dinner, she realises that the place she has made for herself, based on need and pity, has been usurped by another happy woman. She is unable to contain her jealousy, and lashes out at the new girlfriend.
Soon after, it is winter, and we see a shot of the family Volvo, from above, travelling North up a black motorway, snow to either side. We know instantly that someone has died, even before Leigh cuts to black ties against white shirts. We assume it will be Ken, who looks throughout the film as though he's about to have a heart attack. But it is Tom's brother, Ronnie, who has lost his wife. Ronnie's estranged son nearly misses his mother's humble cremation, and belligerently ruins the wake. Tom and Gerri take Ronnie back to London with them for a rest.
In the final scene, Mary, who has not been invited back since her jealous outburst, drops round to find Ronnie alone. It is clear that she is near breaking point. The car she had bought to give her independence has broken down and had to be towed for scrap. She is underdressed for winter and is shivering on the doorstep. She has been drinking ever more heavily.
In a beautiful sequence, she and Ronnie smoke rollups in the darkening, blue-lit conservatory. Through Mary's timid questions, we discover that Ronnie loves Elvis — in her bedraggled state, and pity for another, she draws more out of him than any other character in the film.
The film ends with Mary begrudgingly invited to stay — Gerri tells her friend that she must seek professional help — "you need to take responsibility, you'll be much happier", and warns Mary not to interfere with her family. As the camera travels slowly around the dinner table, we listen to Tom and Gerri telling stories about their early years of travel and optimism. They are speaking about themselves and their personal history for the first time in the film. They echo and reflect the happiness their son and prospective daughter-in-law feel, and draw a circle of shared experience tight around the four of them, as Mary and Ronnie sit silently looking on.
In some reviews, the character of Mary has been seen as ambiguously both a misogynist representation of a lonely single woman, and a sympathetic portrait of some of the intractable difficulties that single women face in contemporary society. Mary is both contained by, but also messily exceeds, her adoptive family: she burrows into them for warmth, perpetually and indiscriminately hugging Tom and Tom's son, flirting with Joe, yet also talking to him like an aunt. She draws noisy attention to her faults when she arrives late to a family summer barbecue, disrupting everyone. She needs to be put to bed in Tom and Gerri's son's old room, when she drinks too much to go home. She is a child-woman, unable to assume adulthood. Has she not grown up because she has not had a child, or has she not had a child because she has not grown up? The chiasmus bats her back and forth.
It was certainly excruciating to watch some of her drunken confessional scenes, and to draw parallels with feelings I undeniably experienced as a single woman. What was more painful was to watch Gerri, who at points seemed silently disapproving, judgemental and smug, safe in her marital cocoon.
It seems to me that Leigh has very brilliantly and uncomfortably allowed us to look at this dynamic between married and single women — his slow, extended takes and intense focus on interiors and faces seems to echo Gerri's professional work as a counsellor, but he also allows us to see more than Gerri does.
Is Tom and Gerri's the only definition of happiness? Their lives, frankly, look unbelievably boring to the onlooker — it is their stability, their certainty, that we envy. And yet, what motivates their inclusion of Mary and Ken? Does pitying unhappy people shore up or even create their contentment?