At this doctor's surgery, a woman (Imelda Staunton) has come to see one of the GPs (Michele Austin) because she is suffering from insomnia, but the doctor wonders if she's getting the whole story since the woman is very reluctant to open up about her problems, all she wants is a packet of sleeping pills. This doctor, Tanya, works with her friends Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a counsellor, and secretary Mary (Lesley Manville) and the former is happily married for some decades to Tom (Jim Broadbent), an engineer specialising in geology, but Mary is a different matter entirely...
After Happy-Go-Lucky, director Mike Leigh returned to his more serious roots, not that the previous film had been a slapstick comedy, but was concerned with how you could stay cheerful when life is telling you that most people are deeply unhappy. In Another Year, that dolorous quality was ever present, so it was a matter of how you coped with it; Tom and Gerri are pragmatic but well-adjusted, yet there are those around them they count as family and friends who are far from that. Not that everyone in the film was cracking up apart from the central couple, Leigh wasn't going to be as black and white as that.
But our attention is drawn to Mary, a middle-aged lady for whom life did not work out as planned, the results of which have left her emotionally all at sea when she doesn't have a partner she so desperately craves, and she's so needy that any man would avoid her like the plague if the subject of romance came up. Well, make that any man who would actually be any good for her, as Tom and Gerri have another friend, Ken (Peter Wight), who would obviously like to have a chance with Mary but he's as messed up in a masculine way as she is in her feminine way, drinking too much, smoking too much, eating too much, getting no exercise - they're uncomfortably close to one another in their failure to manage.
Whenever Mary is in a social situation, she has a glass of wine in her hand, which often leads her to embarrass herself, not least because she has a hopeless crush on Tom and Gerri's single son Joe (Oliver Maltman) who isn't interested, but seems available. So the drama begins to make itself plain: what do you do with those who are unable to accept help for whatever reason? Is it possible to support them simply by staying their friends or does there come a point where there's no more you can do with them? This sense that doesn't often come through in mainstream movies, that there's people who will never improve, for whom there is no light at the end of the tunnel, harked back to Leigh's first film, the aptly-titled Bleak Moments.
So while things happened here which with a different tone could slot into one of the director's comedies, it would be hard to find much funny in the characters. Some saw Tom and Gerri as a smug and cold pair, but really they're more tough but fair, not barely tolerating those in their existence with curt good humour but recognising there is only so much you can do and there comes a stage where you have to admit you cannot solve the problems of the world. This acceptance of the limitations of doing your best would not go down well with everyone, and as always with Leigh and his extensive character backgrounds created with his actors there was a lot we were not being told - why is Tom's nephew Carl (Martin Savage) so bitter about his father Ronnie (David Bradley), for instance? - but the feeling that we were watching a drama throroughly worked out was to its benefit. No happy ending here for everyone, the year passes without everything resolved, and the title sounds like a sentence for more than one character. On the other hand, there is optimism here if you look. Music by Gary Yershon.