If we are lucky, we will find aging to be a fulfilling and rewarding experience; not everyone is so lucky. This is ultimately what is at the heart of writer-director Mike Leigh’s latest dramatic comedy, as we see four seasons in the life of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). The pair (still very much in love after all these years) play host to many old friends during this time, as well as their 30-year-old son, Joe (Oliver Maltman). Their most frequent visitor is Mary (Lesley Manville), a co-worker of Gerri’s who not only drinks and talks too much but flirts too much with Joe. Uh oh. As chipper as Mary is, it is not hard to see the pain underneath, especially when Joe brings a girlfriend home.
This could all play like a bad soap opera, but Leigh (“Secrets & Lies,” “Topsy-Turvy”), who works out the dialogue and scenes with each actor before shooting starts, is less interested in melodrama than he is in simple human nature. However badly these characters behave at times, they are allowed their dignity– partly because they are surrounded by inherently good people, but the actors are the main reason. Broadbent and Sheen are a loving and lovely couple, capable of genuine wit but also biting honesty just under the surface. Still, the film’s true MVP is Manville, who captures Mary’s longing for a connection and her passive-aggressiveness tinged with warmth and sorrow. Mary is really the key character in Leigh’s beautifully compassionate character study, and Manville was one of the big Oscar snubs of this season. Oscar’s loss, but I certainly gained by watching this film.