rating: 4A haunting, yet thoroughly charming portrait of loneliness Evidently, Mike Leigh shows no signs of slowing down as he - like his characters in 'Another Year' - ventures close to old age. Arguably one of Leigh's best films, this drama about coming-of-old-age stays buoyant over its 129-minute runtime not only because of Leigh's ear for authentic, cathartic dialogue, but also as a result of the stunning performances across the board. Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are a contented, firmly middle-class English couple at the cusp of old age. With steady careers and a well-adjusted, fully grown son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), they have little to worry about. Rather, Leigh uses their success as a framing device within which to examine the comparably miserable existence of their close friends; dappy but fun Mary (Lesley Manville) is frequently unlucky in love and overindulges in alcohol to compensate, while the divorced, overweight Ken (Peter Wright) self-flagellates by poring back over old joy and desperately trying to connect with an uninterested Mary. In several ways, this is one of Leigh's most confounding and structurally ambitious films. The opening scene, focusing on Imelda Staunton's Janet character as she visits the doctor, positions her as the protagonist, yet after this introductory scene is over, she is not seen again. The scene instead serves to open up Leigh's discourse on ageing, and allows an effortless segue to introduce us to Gerri, who works at the very same doctor's office. We inobtrusively meet Tom and Gerri going about their day separately, and then, for the film's remainder, we observe their interplay as a couple; they are affable, salt-of-the-Earth types, though imbued with a certain zest that one assumes this cushy lifestyle would typically dissolve. Tom is drolly sarcastic but still very likeable, while Gerri has the patience and understanding of a saint. However, Leigh's conceit is in fact a two-part act, for Tom and Gerri are the not the film's focal point either; that honour belongs to Lesley Manville's Mary. In an early scene that plays out methodically over about twenty minutes as though written for a play, we learn intimate details of Mary's life and personality as she gets drunker, and consequently, is more forthcoming in detailing her endless problems, much to the dismay of the comparatively zen Tom and Gerri. Much like the equally lonely and alienated Ken, she tries to fill the gap in her life with excess, and these moments, though innately comic - especially scenes of Mary drunk and Ken pigging out like his life depends on it - also bear a more devastating truth that ageing is not graceful, no matter how we may try to dress it up with middle-class fancies. As mere beacons for damaged souls, Tom and Gerri themselves are probably the least interesting components of the film; only their incredulity at the unhappiness of their friends seems to stir them at all into a frenzy, though their failure to either offer them serious advice or cut them off entirely feels like Leigh's social satire at play, as though attacking the dispassionate, overly comfy mindset that comes with a middle-class, middle-minded existence (where it would be "too much hassle" to confront Mary or Ken about their problems). Far from a stodgy drama about old people, however, Leigh's trademark wit is boosted by some of his snappiest, sharpest dialogue exchanges to date; a dinner scene is so densely-performed that the dialogue very nearly overlaps, and Leigh, despite his advanced years, crafts a story that is in some measure resonant for the young, also. Through Tom and Gerri's son, we hear a younger, more familiar bout of existential angst, as he decries all of his friends growing up and getting married, while he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time hanging around with the friends of his parents, taking their often outdated advice with more than the grain of salt recommended. For all of its dramatic potency, however, 'Another Year' is as thoroughly charming and batty as any film Leigh has made. From the broader, sillier humour of Mary's attempts to become self-sufficient by purchasing a car, to darker, edgier jokes that hone in on unfortunate truths, it is a perfectly balanced mixture of the rapturous and the melancholic. Leigh's designating the focus of the film to the klutz character is a dangerous move that risks emotional impact, but Manville's intuitive performance so profoundly runs the gamut of human emotion - and is for my money the best female performance of the year, trouncing Jennifer Lawrence in 'Winter's Bone' - that it is a gamble exceptionally well played. 'Another Year' is an unquestionably great film in all respects, but it is also a sad, even depressing look at isolation and loneliness. The catharsis and resolve meted out in Leigh's last film, 'Happy-Go-Lucky', is nowhere to be seen here, and the film's crushing final shot lingers long in the mind after the credits roll. Nevertheless, it is one of the year's best films, and is a likely Best Picture Oscar nominee, with nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress being even more certain. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yypx-Tz8NzU Another Year opens in the U.K. on November 5th.