Barcelona, Spain, contrary to popular belief, is a cold and generally crummy place, and no one – and I mean no one – has it worse there than Javier Bardem. I know it’s hard to believe, especially since we all saw that Woody Allen flick where the city was very good to him, but alas, to paraphrase one of the great philosophers of our time, Bardem’s got 99 problems and a bitch is among them.
In director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, Bardem plays Uxbal, a weary resident of dreary Barcelona. His aforementioned wife (Maricel Álvarez) is an on-again, off-again junkie who sleeps with his brother (Eduard Fernández) from time to time. Uxbal’s work consists of arranging for Chinese immigrants to work in sweatshops, bribing the cops to leave alone the African immigrants hocking the goods, and communicating with the souls of the dead in order to ensure their peaceful transition into the afterlife. You read that right: Uxbal sees dead people.
Speaking of dead people, he also has to relocate Dad’s remains as a pending real estate development looms. That’ll bring in a bit more money, which is good, because Uxbal is trying to get all of his affairs in order. Yes, on top of everything, this poor man has been saddled with prostate cancer.
Like I said, no one has it quite as hard as Uxbal, and Bardem wears the weight of the world on his shoulders well. He’s a man who has borne these burdens for years, who likely came to terms with his mortality long ago and is far too preoccupied with keeping his business interests afloat and his children happy to sit around and mope about it. Whether he’s losing control of his bladder or his marriage, Bardem’s grim expression is that of a man beyond displays of anger or frustration.
Iñárritu is a vengeful god toward his protagonists, as eager to place them in harm’s way as he was in his previous outings, Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. Unlike those others, Iñárritu wrote Biutiful without the help of collaborator Guillermo Arriaga, leaving this story in a mercifully linear order while keeping the duo’s knack for epic contrivance. The man has never worked harder to prolong any glimmer of redemption or hope, and while he does manage the occasionally eerie shot or genuinely poetic image over the course of 150 grueling minutes, Iñárritu’s fourth film is only kept from the verge of self-parody by Bardem’s soulful, understated performance.
England couldn’t be further from the grime and crime of Barcelona. Contrary to popular belief, it’s a warm and homey place, albeit one populated by its own ranks of middle-aged malcontents. Chief among them is Mary (Lesley Manville), a bona fide alcoholic and friend to Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a happily married couple who have already heard that joke about their names hundreds of times before. He’s a geologist, she’s a social worker; they tend to a garden in their spare time, and they’re genuinely proud of their son, Joe (Oliver Maltman).
Mary’s the opposite. She’s been married before, and she’s merry no longer. Although Tom and Gerri gently snipe about it, she remains oblivious to just how much she takes advantage of their hospitality. They have another friend, Ken (Peter Wight), every bit as prone to drink and general longing as Mary is, but she can’t bear to settle for that. She’d rather have Joe and winds up disappointed when he decides that he would rather date someone his own age.
Compared to Biutiful, Mike Leigh’s Another Year is more of a character study and less of an endurance test, as melancholy as that film is miserable. Leigh, known for his improvised approach, uses that natural sensibility to build up the quiet tragedy of life passing by certain individuals, epitomized by Manville’s wine-chugging wreck. It’s little wonder that she drinks, given that she can hardly keep anything bottled up, and her every scene is a losing battle against the delusion that she’s getting any younger. To see Mary’s interactions with Joe play out across her skittish face evokes a marvelously delicate kind of heartache.
No one in Another Year is strictly a sad sack, however, and after spending enough time with them, it’s clear that Tom and Gerri aren’t saints either. These two welcome friends into their home, yet quietly proceed to judge them. While their frustration is at times palpable, it isn’t without a layer of sanctimony. The characterizations and performances are well nuanced across the board, and Leigh’s gradual escalation of emotions is a finely honed counterpoint to the wheelbarrow-and-sledgehammer tack taken by Iñárritu.
As the title suggests, Another Year unfolds across four seasons as birth and death, love and lament govern the lives of family and friends alike; it’s telling that Leigh opts to end in winter rather than the ever-hopeful spring. There’s an appearance early on by Imelda Staunton (the lead in Leigh’s Vera Drake) that serves as a fitting bookend, a brief but potent introduction to a housewife suffering from depression, a woman who seems content with being miserable.
Then again, things could be worse. She could live in Barcelona.
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