Tom and Gerri are happily married. How you take that statement—with a disinterested shrug or a disbelieving sneer—probably predicts how you’ll react to this utterly ordinary, yet quite extraordinary film.
Nothing monumental happens in Mike Leigh’s examination of a year in this British suburban couple’s lives. They tend their plot in a community garden, entertain unhappily unmarried friends, worry about their adult son, go to work, and come home and make dinner. Over the course of the year there will be a birth and a funeral, but neither serves as a pivotal plot point.
Aside from the wonderful performances by Leigh regulars Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, and Ruth Sheen, the film will stay with you for what it doesn’t do. Most movies (and plays, and books) about longtime relationships assume the longevity of the partnership comes at a bitter cost: along the way a compromise has been struck about an affair, a drinking problem, or a general lack of passion, and the couple in question has learned to live with diminished expectations and muddle through the best they can. Marriage, it would seem, is a poorly fortified edifice built on shaky ground, vulnerable to external attacks and internal upheaval. Characters who claim to be happily married are lying to us, or lying to themselves, or newlyweds.
Shockingly, Tom and Gerri seem to genuinely like each other. They know they’re lucky, but they spend more time working on their vegetables than they do working on the relationship. The film isn’t even really “about” their marriage—the plot, such as it is, revolves around Gerri’s unfortunate friend Mary, who takes a fancy to the couple’s son, who is at least 20 years younger and not at all interested. There is something radical in the way Leigh creates such an intimate, closely observed portrait of a marriage and then essentially takes it for granted, looking elsewhere for the drama to propel the narrative. It makes you wish there were more marriages like Tom and Gerri’s onscreen, and cross your fingers there are a few in real life, too.
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