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By Mark Fulton | October 13, 2010

What makes happiness? When does loneliness strangle good intentions? When does fantasy become delusion? How does anyone contend with the fact of getting older?

These are some questions raised in British director Mike Leigh’s sweet gentle film. They are posed with a delicate grace becoming of one of cinema’s great poets. There are seas of nuances from which many meanings can be taken in this movie. Yet they all unfold in conversations. It’s a slam bang difference from what often passes as normal for movies. This is Leigh’s (Naked, Secrets & Lies) strongest film in a while.

Tom and Gerri (cartoon joke intended) have a long lasting happy marriage. The warmth of their love (brought to life by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) is the film’s beating heart. They’re in their mid-60s. Mary (Leslie Manville) is a sweet-hearted free spirit who works as Gerri’s secretary. She’s in her early-40s, unmarried, and feels time running out. Joe (Oliver Maltman) is Tom and Gerri’s 30-year-old son. Peter Wight plays Ken, a boisterous old friend who plays a minor role in the main drama. From various gatherings over the course of a year this subtle drama unfolds with an unforced plot. Matter of fact, there’s little plot at all.

Leigh’s work here is completely about human interaction and the myriad forms and permutations it manifests. This is a movie where the direction of eye movement can tell an entire story. When does the tone of a conversation have unintended meaning? Can there be too much kindness?

A major confrontation happens off screen and is only alluded to. It’s a piece of storytelling rarely done in current cinema. Making the audience think and put it together is one reason why Leigh is a master director who stands apart from his peers. However, there is a predictable death near the end, typical of the domestic drama. But given that so much conversation is about time passed and aging, a death is a natural extension of the film’s themes. A nit-picking point: too many conversations are shot in single actor close-ups when it seems like watching actors interact in a wider shot might be desirable. It’s almost certain this will receive lots of buzz come year-end Oscar season.

From the director Q&A— there were five months of rehearsal where characters were constructed from the bottom up. Nobody operates quite like Mr. Leigh.

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