I have seen the business that God has given to everyone
to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its
time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into
their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done
from the beginning to the end. I know that there is
nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy them-
selves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that
all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.
Mike Leigh’s elegiac film centering on a couple whose passion seems to be their gardening is divided into four parts, one for each of the seasons. Thus it reminded me of Qohelet’s words “For every thing there is a season.” And, given the dark tone of the film, it makes one wonder about the significance of beginning with “Spring” and ending with “Winter.” Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are in the autumn years of their life and still deeply in love and have a close relationship to their 30 year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman). Theirs is the sanctuary type home that draws those who wish they had their happiness, but who will never achieve it. Mary (Lesley Manville), who works as a secretary at the clinic where Gerri serves as a behavior counselor, is probably their most frequent guest. Having gone through a failed marriage and a bad relationship with a married man, she has sought relief in drinking, confessing that she is “a half-full glass” type of person. She fantasizes some day marrying Joe, even though he is 20 years her junior.
Ken (Peter Wright) is an overweight friend who escapes into eating as well as drinking. He casts an eye at Mary, but she believes that she can do far better, but of course, never will. Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley) is almost catatonic when Joe and Gerri visit him upon the death of his wife. What follows made me squirm with discomfort—the funeral with a clergyman going through the motions of a service of hope that no one believes and a late-arriving angry son who disrupts the sad reception attended by just three neighbors who are there only out of duty.
The ensemble cast is pitch perfect, although I can understand why critics have singled out Lesley Manville. She portrays a woman pathetic in her complaints and overdrinking to the point of almost passing out, and yet at times shows a spirit that might have directed her to a better fate had she not made so many bad decisions. When she is introduced to Joe’s girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez), her face registers shock and the internal struggle not to show her immediate dislike because her illusions about Joe have been shattered. She then sets out on a barely concealed campaign to convince Gerri and Tom that Katie would not be a suitable match for their son.
Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are totally believable as the long married couple, their knowing glances and mannerisms revealing a life-long attachment that some marrieds display. Some critics have criticized them as being smug and condescending, but I think this is unkind. Theirs is a home in which all are welcome and tolerated, but each of the non-judgmental pair seems to recognize that there is a limit to what one friend can do for another, especially when the person seems to wallow in their unhappiness and delusions, seemingly incapable of not making the same bad decisions over and over.
Mike Leigh, with his keen observations into human relationships, makes a good stand-in for the “Preacher,” this pessimistic film being so different from similar films emanating from Hollywood. It is slow moving, with little of the action loved by American audiences, but for those who stay with it, richly rewarding. I know, I have often written this about films made beyond our shores, but it is. A married group could have a good time discussing it.
1. Think about each of the characters: Joe; Gerri; Mary; Ken; Joe. Which are like someone you know?
2. Why do you think there are so many scenes of Tom and Gerri tending to their plot in the community garden? How is their love of gardening akin to their lifestyle and relationship? What do you think is the difference between the two ways of viewing the world in the story told by Gerri? (Two people stand at the seashore, and the wife (?) looks out with her back to the cliff and sees the sea, while the geologist stands with his back to the sea and looks at the cliff.) Which way might you choose first? How is each of them important?
3. What do you think lies at the heart of Mary and Ken’s unhappiness? How are both circumstances and character determining factors in our finding what we call “happiness” ? Check out the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 and see how they might relate to the two, as well as to Tom and Gerri. What are the qualities which Jesus said produces “happiness” ? (Or “blessedness” ?
4. From what you see, what must the relationship have been between brother Ronnie and his wife? What future do you see for the relationship between Ronnie and his son Carl? In the scene in which Mary visits while Tom and Gerri are away, how does Ronnie begin to connect with the world outside his own private world of pain?
5. What do you think of Katie? How does she seem to fit right into the threesome? Do you think that Joe is following the pattern of the old song “I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad” ?
6. If you have seen it, compare the outlook of the 1981 film The Four Seasons, which also is divided into Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. What significance do you see in Mike Leigh’s beginning with Spring and ending with Winter? Especially in regard to Mary and Ken? How is this film’s mood or outlook similar to that of the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes? If you could talk with Mary or Ken, what might you say to them?