"Another Year" is another impacting slice of life from indie filmmaker Mike Leigh. The most widely acclaimed English language picture at last summer's Cannes Film Festival, it also features a performance that has received some recognition from critics groups in the current awards season race toward Oscar. Lesley Manville is an underdog contender for her role as a pitiful creature named Mary, the unhappy single friend of a happy couple. Her rendering is as hard to forget as it is hard to watch.

'Another Year'

If you go
» Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
» Stars: Lesley Manville, Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen
» Director: Mike Leigh
» Rated PG-13 for some language
» Running time: 129 minutes

Though less familiar to mainstream American audiences, art house patrons know the small-scale films of Leigh well. Usually the product of intensive, improvisational preparation with his actors, the output of the British writer-director includes a few of the most moving if modest character-focused dramas of the last two decades. "Secrets & Lies" (1996), "Topsy-Turvy" (1999) and "Vera Drake" (2004) are probably his best recognized ones in this country.

"Another Year" fits right into his oeuvre. As in the majority of Leigh narratives, a little group of everyday British working people cope with life's often vexing challenges. Along an uneasy journey, at various times these folks can elicit from viewers empathy, ennui, sadness, indignation, bewilderment and amusement.

Here you just want to keep saying, "Poor, poor Mary." A lonely, broke and increasingly alcoholic divorcee clings desperately to her friendship with what Bridget Jones would call smug marrieds, Gerri (Ruth Sheen) and Tom (Jim Broadbent).

Set in North London among fiftysomethings, the film unfolds over the course of a year as things get ever better for the blissful professional couple. Their grown son finally settles down with a lovely girlfriend, for instance. But things just get worse for Mary and the other dysfunctional people they seem to attract to their inner circle.

But why do they embrace the addicted, the grieving and the misanthropic? As pleasant and kind as Gerri and Tom are to the disenfranchised, they are exasperating. You have to wonder if they keep them around to feel superior and lucky by contrast.

Manville digs deep to communicate Mary's pain. As admirable as that is and as effectively as Leigh puts us inside a stripped-down movie experience, sometimes you have to ask yourself why you would want to be a fly on this wall. It's like a deglamorized reality show on some obscure hybrid cable channel somewhere way up the dial between the BBC and hell.