Review: Another Year & Fela!

In the middle of watching Mike Leigh’s Another Year, I realised why I usually dislike mimetic films. The reality they purport to capture has nothing to do with their glossy interiors and shiny surfaces. Actors — especially Hollywood actors — do not look like they do in real life without the flattering lighting, makeup and carefully adjusted wardrobe. They do not look like us. Give me fantastical films that heighten reality or offer a completely new world! I’ll buy the artifice. But tell me it’s a “grittily realistic” slice o’ life where a beautiful star gains a few pounds or wears glasses — no, I don’t care.

Which is why Leigh’s films are such a delight. While British films in general seem to be increasingly permeated by plasticity like Hollywood, Leigh continues to cast people who look like human beings who have lived. We believe in Tom and Gerri (Kim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), the long term couple who potter around their daily lives with seemingly little drama except that provided by others. The film opens with Gerri trying to reach a prospective therapy patient, played with heartbreaking, shattered, vulnerability by Imelda Staunton, then Tom the geologist at work on the latest intrusion of London clay currently filling the Victorian plumbing of the capital city. But the central image of the film as it moves through the four seasons is their garden at the allotment. Much of the pleasure and tenderness of their lives is spent there, speaking little but tending, always keeping an eye on things.

Obviously it’s a metaphor for their marriage, but more so for their approach to relationships as a whole. They prod their son for news about his life, but never intrusively and he shows himself to have learned from their example. They put up with Gerri’s colleague Mary, the neediest woman on the planet, but not without tag-teaming to deal with her fatiguing ways. They tut over their various friends’ miseries and offer genuine help, but they’re not willing to be dragged down by them either. Their friends like Mary, Ken and Tom’s brother Ronnie find themselves miserable and confused, mostly because they’re so self-centered. They don’t tend their relationships, they don’t concern themselves with anything outside themselves. When Mary, desperate for a relationship, finally has a small moment of connection, she can’t really capitalise on it, because she doesn’t really know how to connect. The pace of the film is leisurely, but you will enjoy the time spent with Tom and Gerri.

Fela! was the most recent of the National Theatre broadcasts at the Spectrum. Bill T. Jones’ vision of the Afrobeat pioneer and self-styled Nigerian revolutionary Fela Kuti pulsates with rhythm and dance of course! Even if you know nothing about Kuti (I really only knew his big international hit, “Zombie”) you will be enraptured by the music — it’s simply irresistible. I was particularly captivated by the beginning of the second half which started with a bunch of kalimbas being played. My colleague Dave Rice once opined that if everyone were issued their own thumb piano the world would be a more peaceful place: I agree. The rising and falling fortunes of the singer (Sahr Ngaujah) were tied to the death of his mother Funmilayo (Melanie Marshall) who had fought against the corrupt government and was eventually murdered. The play manages to introduce the audience to Afrobeat, to tell Kuti’s story without pulling punches (he was no angel!) and uplift the audience despite a whole lot of tragedy. I found the journey to the orishas in the second half simply mesmerising. It was a treat for the whole cast — and audience, too — to have director/choreographer Jones join them on stage for the encore, shirtless and looking awfully youthful (and muscular) at sixty as they all danced more. With the interval, the show came to nearly three hours, yet it never dragged. Energizing!