English Bittersweet & Bloody Berlin

A year with Mike Leigh, a week with Liam Neeson

Drinking to Another Year

Another Year ★★★½ Directed by Mike Leigh Starring Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville and Ruth Sheen PG-13 – 129 minutes Opens Friday at the Odeon

English writer-director Mike Leigh is an understated auteur who collaborates extensively with his actors and has produced a wide and impressive body of work, everything from an unsparing look at an abortion provider in repressive 1950s England (Vera Drake) to a quirky portrait of operetta odd-couple Gilbert and Sullivan (Topsy-Turvy). His latest film, less edgy than most in his oeuvre, is named Another Year and centres on a married couple who has remained very happy well into late middle age — which marks them as luckier than their mostly less-happy friends, whom we watch drift in and out of their lives over the four seasons of a bittersweet year.

The great Jim Broadbent stars as Tom, a geologist-engineer; this quiet soul loves cooking and working in his allotment garden with wife Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a counselor attached to a medical clinic. Tom is a gentle fellow, but readily admits that his wife is the compassionate one. Even though he readily accepts dysfunctional friends such as his wife’s long-time workmate Mary over for dinner — and makes no fuss when this unfulfilled woman turns into a drunken, self-pitying mess and has to stay the night — Tom often trots out stinging comments when people’s bad behaviour and self-delusions irritate him. Other characters include Ken, an eight-year widower who’s too fond of drinking; Tom and Gerri’s 30-year-old son Joe, who has finally found himself a nice girl; and Tom’s brother, Ronnie, whom we meet late in the film, at the funeral after his wife dies.

There’s lots of chatting that happens throughout Year, but not a lot of real communication. A soggy, very British sadness and disconnection keeps seeping through, nicely captured when Ronnie is asked whether his semi-estranged son is married. “Dunno,” he says, after a pause. This brilliantly acted film is one of those where nothing all that dramatic happens, but every moment feels truthful and a lot is revealed about the human condition, from birth to death. Call it a Mike Leigh joint. M  

Unknown ★★½ Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra Starring Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger and January Jones PG-13 – 109 minutes Continues at the Capitol, SilverCity and Uni

4 Even though Liam Neeson was a strong presence in Batman Begins and swung a mighty sword in Rob Roy, this soulful and talented actor never aspired to be an action hero. But the ex-forklift operator from Northern Ireland very convincingly left a trail of bad-guy corpses in his wake in 2008’s hyper-violent Taken and now treads similar terrain in Unknown, a Hitchcock-style thriller with existential pretensions.

Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris, a famous scientist who is traveling with his pretty blonde wife Liz (January Jones, Mad Men) to a conference in Berlin. Briefly separated from Liz shortly after arrival, Harris has a car accident while in a taxi and spends four days in a coma. He awakes feeling shaky and dazed — a sense of confusion that deepens considerably when he goes to his hotel only to have his wife say she has no idea who he is. Things get even worse when a second Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) walks up, to all intents and purposes Liz’s happy husband and the rightful participant at the biotech conference. The original Harris desperately hunts for clues: is this an inexplicable impersonation or a hallucination caused by the accident? But when it becomes apparent that someone is following him with evil intent, Harris intensifies his search — and discovers a deeper mystery than he ever anticipated.

The movie tries hard, but never really catches on fire. There is a dazzling car chase and some rousing mayhem, but not enough suspense or intrigue to really hook the audience, relying too much on a late-breaking — and very preposterous — plot twist. Even the great German actor Bruno Ganz (Downfall) puts in a disappointingly mannered performance as an ex-Stasi agent helping Harris with his quest. Ultimately, Unknown has an identity crisis not unlike that of its protagonist: partially a thriller and partially an inquiry into questions of memory and identity, the movie does a pedestrian job with the former while paying scant concern to the latter. M

 

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