“Work then without disputing,” said Martin; “it is the only way to render life supportable.”
The little society, one and all, entered into this laudable design and set themselves to exert their different talents. The little piece of ground yielded them a plentiful crop. Cunegund indeed was very ugly, but she became an excellent hand at pastrywork: Pacquette embroidered; the old woman had the care of the linen. There was none, down to Brother Giroflee, but did some service; he was a very good carpenter, and became an honest man. Pangloss used now and then to say to Candide:
“There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not traveled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.”
“Excellently observed,” answered Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.”
So ends Voltaire’s immortal novel Candide, ou L’Optimisme (1759). It is an oddly enigmatic ending that has elicited much commentary and speculation. By the end of the book, Candide has witnessed and experienced many hardships and horrors. He has travelled the world and seen the worst of it. Yet, when called upon to distill his all of his knowledge and insight, the optimist expresses only a desire to tend his garden. This desire to return to the garden is not an ode to the unexamined life or a hymn to religion’s capacity to return us to Edenic bliss. It is a belief, simply stated, that the world is what we make of it and that the harshness of existence can only be kept at bay by the construction of a carefully tended space. A space that is ours. A space that we control and that we care for. When Voltaire suggests that first we must tend to our gardens he is telling us that meaning is not something that we discover in the world, but something we build into it. Happiness requires work. It requires continual effort.
This simple realisation lies at the heart of Mike Leigh’s new film Another Year.
Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are an idyllic couple. They have been married for decades and yet they still very much love each other. They never argue. They never complain. They never moan. They do everything together… including tending their allotment. Unfortunately, Tom and Gerri’s friends do not completely share the couple’s idyllic life. In fact, most of their friends are pretty miserable.
The film begins in spring as Tom and Gerri are planting their vegetables and breaking ground in preparation for another year’s growth and fruitfulness. Gerri works as a councellor and decides to go out for a drink with her friend Mary (Lesley Manville). Mary is a woman of rapidly advancing age but she dresses young and she has a kind of manic cheery ditziness about her that makes her instantly likeable. And yet something is quite clearly wrong. As Gerri and Mary talk over a glass of wine, it becomes clear that Mary is horrifically lonely. She stares wistfully at a man by the bar and, despite never actually talking to him or sharing a glance or a smile, she seems crestfallen when a woman appears and embraces the man. This is a woman who is grasping at straws. This much is confirmed when Tom and Gerri invite Mary round for dinner only for her to get horribly drunk and weepy. But it’s okay… she’s going to buy herself a little red car.
The film then moves on to summer and we encounter another of Tom and Gerri’s friends, the equally lonely and equally miserable Ken (Peter Wight). Ken is clearly a raging alcoholic and a binge eater. He is terrifyingly unhappy living up in the North and yet he refuses to take early retirement and he refuses to move South to be closer to his friends. As the years tick by, he is getting fatter and slower and sadder. He has also latched onto Mary but Mary wisely smells that something is wrong with Ken. She is repulsed because he is fat. She is repulsed because he is needy. But she is also repulsed because she sees the worst of herself in unhappy Ken. Indeed, Ken’s dogged pursuit of Mary (right down to awkwardly inhaling on his cigarette at the same time as her in an attempt to mirror her body language) is reflected in Mary’s affection for Tom and Gerri’s 30 year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman). Much like his parents, Joe is happy and together. He is also single. Initially, Mary’s affection for Joe resembles simple friendship and fondness but after two large glasses of wine and a refusal to realise that Joe is just being nice when he avoids agreeing to have a drink with her, Mary’s affection for Joe starts to look desperate and creepy. Desperate and creepy in the same way as Ken’s fondness for Mary looks desperate and creepy.
Autumn begins with a surprise: Joe has acquired a girl-friend, a relentlessly up-beat and assiduously happy young woman named Katie (Karina Fernandez). The pair have only known each other a short while but one can instantly tell that they are deeply in love. In love in the same way as Gerri and Tom are in love. The young couple stay for tea and encounter Mary. Mary is horrified to discover that Joe has found someone his own age and spends the afternoon intentionally forgetting the young woman’s age, picking arguments with her and belittling her accomplishments and values. Mary is also drinking quite heavily again. She drinks and she complains about her little red car. It is expensive. It keeps breaking down. She should really get rid of it. It has been a real disappointment.
Another Year is a film that dwells on the vast distances between spoken and non-verbal communication. Tom and Gerri (as well as Joe and Katie) speak only in jokes and well-intentioned teasing: they gibe, they giggle, they exaggerate and they mock. Their conversation is a relentless phatic spew… and yet they are in constant communication with each other. Thanks to some beautifully low-key performances, Another Year presents us with a couple who are always speaking but never saying anything because nothing ever actually needs to be said. Tom and Gerri communicate through eye-contact, lingering gazes, pauses, barely perceptible frowns and carefully stressed words in otherwise innocuous-sounding sentences. They are not only constantly reading the social situations they are in, they are also in constant touch with each other. Always guiding things. Always providing feedback and encouragement. When Tom and Gerri feel the need to speak to someone directly it is because it is serious.
It is serious when Tom asks Ken if he is okay.
It is serious when Tom suggests that he and Ken go on a walking holiday.
It is serious when Tom and Gerri decide to cut Mary out of the loop.
Winter brings tragedy in the shape of death. Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley) has lost his wife and he is utterly destroyed. Needless to say Tom, Gerri and Joe attend the funeral and organise everything for the shell-shocked and mono-syllabic Ronnie. They lay on food, they invite the wife’s co-workers back to the house and they try to protect Ronnie from the directionless anger of his estranged son Carl (Martin Savage). Carl’s directionless anger provides a fascinating counterpoint to Tom and Gerri’s wordless understanding : Carl rages, accuses and blames. He sprays his unhappiness and impotence at anyone and everyone and yet nothing he says ever really means anything. We never learn why he was estranged from his parents. We never learn why he is so angry at his father. We never learn why he was late to the funeral or what happened to make him so bitter. Tom and Gerri talk rubbish and yet communicate in depth. Carl speaks in deep emotions and yet communicates rubbish.
Returning to London with the family, Ronnie is left alone in the house while the others tend to their garden. with Tom and Gerri gone, the house seems empty and cold. The light strangely blue and diffuse as though reflecting Ronnie’s internal state. A knock at the door brings Mary. Cast into the outer darkness by Tom and Gerri following her behaviour towards Joe and Katie, she is a much reduced figure. No longer ditzy or young-looking, she now looks precisely like what she is: an aging and depressed alcoholic. Evidently her little red car was towed away… it not only failed to bring her happiness, it brought her only misery. For a few minutes, Mary tries to convince the mono-syllabic Ronnie to let her into the house. Initially reluctant, Ronnie soon thaws… then thaws again and again. From letting her in, Ronnie moves to sharing a cup of tea with Mary and then a cigarette. He is even on the verge of allowing her to return home to the north with him when Tom and Gerri return from the allotment.
Beautifully played, this scene shows Ronnie learning the lesson that Mary never bothered to learn. Ronnie has just lost his wife, he is alone and in shock… and yet he still finds time to listen to Mary’s problems and offer her some sympathy and some basic human warmth. This is precisely the kind of warmth and sympathy that Tom, Gerri and Joe once provided to Mary and it is precisely the kind of warmth and sympathy that Mary so callously denied to Ken.
Ronnie has learned that happiness is not something that exists independently in the world. It is something that must be nurtured, tended and cultivated over long periods of time. It requires effort. It requires dedication. It requires the making of tough decisions. Indeed, there is a certain brutality to the way in which Tom and Gerri choose to deny their warmth and compassion to Mary at a time when she most desperately needs it but this is to fail to understand the extent to which happiness is a two way street. Indeed, Mary makes the mistake of thinking that Tom and Gerri are a natural source happiness and that, by hitching her wagon to them (in particular by seducing Joe), she can syphon off some of that happiness for herself but when Tom and Gerri help Mary they are not just making her happy, they are making themselves happy too. When Mary oversteps the bounds of their friendship and starts being horrible to Katie, she becomes a plant that ceases to bear fruit and, as good gardeners, Tom and Gerri realise that it is time to dig up the plant and cast it out of the garden.
The Stanford professor Robert Pogue Harrison wrote Gardens – An Essay on the Human Condition (2008) about the relationship between gardens and human happiness. In it, he argues that :
One of the paradoxes of the present age is that our craving for more life is precisely what is driving us to re-Edenize the earth, to turn it into a consumerist paradise where everything is given simultaneously, without labor, suffering, or husbandry. — page 164
Mary is a consumer. She believes that by buying a little red car she will be happy and that by seducing Joe she can be happy. She consumed the happiness that Tom and Jerri radiate but when the opportunity is afforded her to repay some of that kindness she expresses only anger and spite at being refused what she perceives as her natural right to passively receive happiness. The fact that happiness requires personal investment and work is beautifully demonstrated in Another Year’s final scene. Having convinced Ronnie to let her into Tom and Jerri’s house, Mary is reluctantly invited to dinner. She sits at the dinner table and happy conversation flows around her. It flows around her but not into her. Mary sits, her eyes cast downwards, utterly alone and utterly miserable despite the happiness of the room and the people she is sitting with. As the camera lingers on Mary’s devastated face, the volume of the conversation slowly drops until Mary is cloaked in silence. Again, Mary has failed to learn. She has failed to cultivate her garden.