At the center of Another Year is a couple with an idyllic lifestyle. Around them swirls a small but fierce storm of desperate people whose lives have gone the wrong direction, who drink way too much and for whom writer-director Mike Leigh provides no glimmers of hope.
In the first frame of the film, we meet just such a person, named Janet (Vera Drake's Imelda Staunton), a shrinking shell of a woman paying a visit to a clinic. She's suffering from extreme insomnia but won't admit she's severely depressed, and she wants a quick prescription for sleeping pills. Her physician won't give her more than a week's worth of medication until the woman sees a therapist. That therapist turns out to be Gerri (Ruth Sheen), one half of the happy couple at the center of the film. Gerri eventually asks Janet if she can think of anything that would improve her life. "Another life," mumbles Janet.
Somehow, Gerri is able to smile through a full day of seeing people like Janet and even occasionally tops her day off by having a sociable drink with her friend and co-worker Mary (Lesley Manville), who's ultimately just as pitiable as Janet. Mary doesn't want sleeping pills but wine, and lots of it. Gerri and her husband Tom (Jim Broadbent) are good-natured about Mary's drunkenness and the scattered conversation it causes when they have her over for dinner. Later in the film, they tolerate her at a backyard barbecue and eventually hope to avoid her, as Mary lets slip the pathetic designs she has on their adult son Joe (Oliver Maltman) when he pops in for dinner with his new girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez).
There are enough impromptu dinner get-togethers and backyard barbecues to carefully chart Mary's descent from being tolerable to being desperate, because Tom and Gerri's spacious London apartment is a great place to have people over. Additionally, Tom and Gerri's hearts are even bigger than their Food Network-size kitchen. Their bright and roomy home is an extension of their outlook and their relationship, so much so that later in the film, when they are absent during a scene between a tearful Mary and Tom's sad widower brother, the home is sapped of light, rendered chilly and ashen.
In making a movie about two very happy, well-adjusted people, Leigh juxtaposes them with the suffering of others. Mary, Tom's brother Ronnie and Tom's childhood friend Ken are all total and complete wrecks. The few lines that Jack (Phil Davis) gets at the barbeque are about his wife's major health problems. Joe has found some happiness with Katie, but his male friendships are fading, and before he met Katie he wasn't exactly fending off admirers.
At the end of the film, after the camera pans in a circle around the table, it lands on Mary, for whom almost nothing has changed. If anything, she's unable to continue deceiving herself about the closeness of her friendship with Gerri and her own desirability. But as she gulps down wine and finds herself left out of the conversation, it's hardly clear whether it's such a good thing that she's losing her illusions. Tom and Gerri have a good life. Mary does not. Most people do not.
While there is some kind of hope in the example that Tom and Gerri provide with their optimism and charity, it is the insomniac Janet—who appears only in two scenes—who haunts the film. People can hope that things will get better, hope to have a life more like Tom and Gerri's. But in hoping for a better life, they are really hoping for another life altogether. One they surely will never get.