Another Year – Narcissism, Isolation, Therapy? By Jacqueline Palmer

Mike Leigh’s latest film is a wonderful ensemble portrait of what it means to grow old, of friendship, relationships, intimacy, isolation and loneliness.  ‘Another Year’ illuminates over four seasons the lives of Tom, a geologist, and Gerri, a counsellor (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen).  The story is centred round their kitchen table and the friends that pass through, as well as the changing landscape of their allotment, where they lovingly tend their fruit and veg.  In the shadow of Tom and Gerri’s enduring love and domestic ease, their single friends are found to be suffering, lonely and struggling with their inner demons and addictions.

Ken (Peter Wright) Tom’s boyhood friend wears a ‘Less thinking more drinking’ t shirt, unconsciously reaching for alcohol and cigarettes to fill the void of his quiet despair.  While Gerri’s work mate Mary (Lesley Manville) turns up regularly at their dinner table, ditsy, manic, often charming, she also uses booze and fags in her struggle to keep her feelings under wraps, and turn an optimistic front.  She also uses her outworn seductive techniques on Tom and Gerri’s thirty year old son Joe, who she’s known since he was a small boy.

The death of Tom’s sister-in-law introduces Tom’s brother Ronnie, a truly mournful character whose life is at odds with Tom and Gerri’s warm expressive social ease, and whose alienated angry son Carl contrasts with Tom Gerri and Joe’s happy family.  The film poses questions about the way we live, the relationships we make, the community we foster, as the seasons pass and no one is getting any younger.  Nowhere more true than in the character of Mary, as her narcissistic wounds are so deep she cannot bear witness to anyone’s else’s joy, flinching as Tom compliments his wife’s body, and burning with rage when Joe turns up with his new girlfriend Kate.  Cold and punishing, her narcissistic lack of feeling for others, unkind to Ken, and hostile to Kate, threatens to sever the acceptance and friendship that Tom and Gerri offer her, and which she needs so desperately.

But the seasons pass, and it’s winter, and Mary turns up uninvited after a sleepless and terrifying night of misery to find brother Ronnie, who is unsure whether to even open the door to her and bring her in from the cold.  When Gerri suggests Mary needs to see a therapist, Mary cries “But as long as we’re friends then I’m alright!”  But we fear she will not be alright, in an enduring final long shot on her in close up revealing her suffering, her anxiety and despair.

The film shows us time running out, the characters ageing and facing death as it calls to all of us to find meaning, community, love, joy, reconciliation, self acceptance, humour, and not to act out unconsciously as Mary does, using her addictions to layer over her unhealed wounds.  Narcissism is the love of self which precedes loving others, and secondary narcissism is seen as a defence from an early injury to self-esteem.  People with a narcissistic personality disorder respond to attacks on their inflated self-image with rage, and it takes a long time to seek help but finally, as with Mary, other people start to close their doors.

The film resonates for me as a good advert for people not to continue to suffer alone, but take a period of healthy self-examination.  It’s autumn and winter is pressing in.