The Circle of Life: Part II
Lesley Manville’s subtle but radical transformation from a woman whose laughter seems to come too easily (and whose charm seems a bit of a put-on) to a broken, brittle casualty of life’s cruelty is one of the most bruising things I’ve ever seen on film. It’s a performance of intensely precise calculation–we see the change coming but are nevertheless shocked when it does–so much so that critics may accuse her of too willingly showing us her bag of tricks. Yet, Mary is a woman full of quirk and affectation; it’s difficult to play such a Big character without appearing to be Acting, to some extent. Yet, Manville’s borderline theatricality adds to, rather than detracts from, the overall impact of the film. For this post, I want to write about the particulars of the film rather than how it’s made or the people behind it (the text as opposed to the discourse, if you will). Tom and Gerri are the characters driving the narrative, though the relationship between the two of them is something of a dramatic wasteland. They’re happily, lovingly married, and they work as an even-handed team. Their natural chemistry and pure good-heartedness provides a stable base around which the other characters ebb and flow, hoping to magnetize themselves to Tom and Gerri’s model of humanity, yet further depressed because the contrast is too great. Tom and Gerri are friends that everyone would like to have–courteous, humble, unassuming, and unimposing–but their very virtues call greater attention to their weaker friends’ flaws. Leigh’s film shows us the peaceful life of Tom and Gerri throughout the four seasons of an average year (not one without incident, but not particularly different than any other year, hence the title). Drifting around them are sad, lonely people who may hope the happy couple can emanate some of their magic onto their lives.
One of these people is Mary. In her first substantial scene, she’s all too willing to explain how happy she is: “I’m really comfortable with where I am in my life, as you know. I’ve got my lovely little garden flat, I’ve got a good job, I’ve got my health, I’ve got my independence. I haven’t got anybody telling me what to do. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s not all rosy. I have good days and bad days like everyone else, don’t I? But, hey…” Turns out, her bad days are far more frequent and far worse than the average person’s. She’s instantly signaled as an alcoholic (nearly going through an entire bottle of wine singlehandedly as if it’s the most normal thing in the world) and a lonely divorcee (in a fantastic moment of minimalism, she looks longingly at a man across the bar, before he’s joined by a companion). In her list of the upsides of being single, she leaves off the fact that coming home to and waking up next to nothing more than a cat can lead to many quiet nights and one too many drinks. After a casual dinner turns into a one-woman booze fest, the darker side of the single life comes out: “I’m not going to get a holiday this year. But then I never do, do I, Gerri? Because I haven’t got anyone to go with.” It’s not about spending vacation with someone; it’s about spending life with someone. And while this sentiment carried to an extreme degree can lead to forced monogamy and inevitably unfulfilling marriages, no one can argue that both joy and misery love company. No one likes the valleys or the mountaintops without someone to cry and laugh with, respectively. In this moment of depressing clarity, the “lovely little garden flat” turns into “a poky, rented flat when I should have my own home at my age.” But, homes are for families, just as vacations are. For that matter, just about everything is for families. Except drinking. The grass is always greener, I suppose, but Mary obviously feels she has missed out on what one thinks one should have from life. Toward the end of the film, she’s asked if she has kids, to which she replies, “No. Unfortunately.” Nothing in the film has previously indicated that Mary wants kids or would even be the type of person who could raise them. She likes being attractive; she hopes to pick up a man; but motherhood doesn’t exactly appear to be a calling or a desire. To me, the randomness (if you can call it that) of this line is brilliant; Mary doesn’t know if she really wants kids (or a husband, for that matter). She can’t say with any certainty what she wants, except to say that she wants to love and be loved, and she wants the emptiness nagging her soul to go away. Mary transfers this desire onto the act of buying a car, which is not so much a possession for her as a promise of freedom. She goes so far as to say the car will “change her life,” so desperate she is for pacification of the void. Of course, the reality never lives up to the fantasy; our fulfillments always pale in comparison to our expectations. Mary’s car is fraught with problems from day one; eventually it’s towed away with little compensation. The hope that she had for it joins her other disappointments in a pile of ashes. In a cliché all too prominent, Mary seeks satisfaction in the wrong places, and it consistently drives her deeper into a bottle.
The way that Tom and Gerri (Gerri in particular, for she is her closer friend) maneuver between friendly tolerance for Mary’s indulgences and unbiased earnestness toward her outright self-destruction is one of the many joys of the film. Friends can let you get by with a lot, but there must be a line; if there isn’t one, these people are neither friends nor particularly moral individuals (see my post on Good Will Hunting). Tom and Gerri do not let Mary bring them down, and they refuse to have their family poisoned by her. Yet, they care for her; they pity her; and they mostly evade condescending to her or judging her. Gerri tells her she must take responsibility for her actions, and she’s right. Mary must seek professional help; she’s clearly depressed and dependent on alcohol. I found this aspect of the film particularly moving. We all have our circle of friends and acquaintances (our circle of influence), and we all orbit around other people’s circles. Sometimes we make conscious decisions concerning how we’re going to deal with certain people, but most of the time, we’re oblivious to how impactful our behavior can be on those around us. People are among the most important things in our lives, but they also carry the most baggage. We’re flawed, messy individuals, and we don’t know how an expression or comment may affect someone else. I know this sounds a bit touchy-feely, but I think it should be pointed out. We’re never just living for ourselves; we influence those around us as intensely as they influence us (which, let’s face it, is more than we’d like to admit). Mary simply wants to matter to people. Her question, “Does Gerri ever mention me?” is heartbreaking, because in a relationship that’s more take than give, it’s clear that Mary benefits more from Gerri’s existence than Gerri does from hers. People usually don’t continually mention friends, however, that are extremely selfish and implosive. If Mary wants to matter more, perhaps she should serve her friends rather than exploit them.
At the end of the film, Mary is nearly at the end of her rope. She can no longer muster the air of spunk that she could before. Notice that when she’s asked earlier in the film how she is, she replies, “Yeah, I’m alright,” in a gut reaction of honesty, only to quickly cover it up with, “No, I’m great actually.” When we attempt to appear happier than we are, we usually become even less happy than we were at the start. In the dungeon of winter, Mary has given up on acting. In the ultimate expression of self-imprisonment, she says, “I might move away somewhere else. Start again.” But, a new climate won’t change her problems. A new companion won’t change her problems. Sobriety won’t even change her problems, unless the substance is in turn replaced with something truly satisfying. We all know Marys, and we’ve all been Marys more often than we’d care to confess. Another Year paints the potential perils of the single life as terrifyingly as Blue Valentine paints the potential perils of the married life. Yet, again, neither situation solves anything in itself unless the individual finds their peace with God. How we treat the Marys around us and how those around us treat us in our Mary-moments is as profound a measure of friendship as anything I’ve come across in film. I’m glad films that spur such introspection continue to be made, even if I’m branching off a bit from the text itself. Seek it out if you want to look at life in the coarse light of day; if not, you won’t be at a shortage of films at your local multiplex to keep the noise level high and the cerebral level low.