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Life's quiet challenges at the heart of 'Another Year'

The stately, mature British import “Another Year” is low on incident but heavy on personality, with fully realized characters at its core.

It’s typical of writer/director Mike Leigh, whose films tend to marvel at the small things in our everyday lives (“Secrets and Lies,” “Happy-Go-Lucky”).

Here, we visit middle-aged married couple Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) during each season over the course of one year of their lives. The story rarely leaves their home, as we discover that they’re the happy, sturdy anchor to a group of insecure friends and relatives around them.

We start with spring, when we’re introduced to Gerri’s helplessly lonely work colleague, Mary (Leslie Manville). She gets too tipsy and whines about her disastrous love life. Meanwhile, Tom and Gerri’s son, Joe (Oliver Maltman) reports to his parents that he’s still pathologically single at age 30.

In the summer, Tom’s boyhood friend, Ken (Peter Wight), arrives for a visit, and we soon see that he is as hot a mess as Mary.

Then things get complicated at a barbecue, where Ken obviously has feelings for Mary, while she obviously has feelings for Joe.

And that makes things even more complicated when we visit Tom and Gerri again in autumn, when Joe introduces his parents to his new girlfriend, which makes Mary jealous and spiteful.

Finally, in winter, we follow Tom, Gerri and Joe as they attend a funeral with Tom’s brother, Ronnie (David Bradley), whose wife has just passed away. They invite him to come stay with them in London.

Things take a surprising turn when Mary comes for a visit while Tom and Gerri are away, and Ronnie is the only one at home.

Leigh has received an Academy Award nomination for his writing, which was a process that involved months of character improvisation with the actors. Apparently, much of the story was improvised, as well, though the actors and Leigh know where it was headed. There was no actual script in a traditional sense.

It makes for real-sounding dialogue, naturalistic acting and intimate situations. Leigh is not so concerned with life’s troubles as much as he is its quiet challenges.

And the counterforces at work here are emotional ones. Mary is just barely holding things together, and the role is a marvelous acting challenge for Manville, who gives a nuanced yet emotionally overwrought performance. She also adds much of the film’s wry humor while wholly owning its sadness (she is nominated for a best supporting actress BAFTA Award, the equivalent of our Oscar).

Though Mary isn’t exactly the focus of the ensemble, her story emerges as the symbolic one. We seek solace in a human connection, and without it, we’re utterly lost.

Leigh and his cast don’t lose their way in “Another Year.” It’s impressively understated and thoroughly grownup fare.

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