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Cannes 2010: Mike Leigh's topsy-turvy ride

May 17, 2010 |  2:00 am

Mike Leigh can be a famously challenging interview. But questioning the unorthodox director -- who has managed to consistently turn out strong, Oscar-worthy films with an iconoclastic method that involves very little scripting and a lot of rehearsal -- isn't nearly as complicated as his fate has been at Cannes over his long career.

The Brit has come to the festival several times, taking the Palme d'Or for the interracial adoption drama "Secrets & Lies" back in 1996. But then  he didn't come in 2004 with "Vera Drake" -- to some, his best movie -- and despite the outcry on that, he didn't come with "Happy Go-Lucky" four years later.

This year, Leigh's fortunes have gone upside down once again.  He's turned out, in another year, "Another Year," which is another very strong film. A story that slyly and continually shifts its focus between a low-key, stable elderly couple, played by the brilliant Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent, and a constellation of dysfunctional acquaintances pulled into the couple's orbit, the film is indeed as appealing as many of the critics have it. It's smart, unexpected, touching, palpably believable and

deeply human. Though it's possibly a level below his best -- "Secrets & Lies" and "Naked" -- and though Leigh can sometimes exploit a character's personality quirks for his brand of discomfiting dark comedy (he does it again here with a deluded, garrulous woman named Mary), every note in it rings true.

And with a couple both enjoying and beginning to brace for the challenges of their twilight years, it's the kind of highly relevant story that you  rarely see told on the American screen.

It gets better for Leigh: A consensus is starting to build for the film as a serious Palme d'Or contender. It's sometimes tricky to win the big prize at Cannes when your movie has played here so early, but given the weak field so far and the universal embrace, it has an excellent shot. Of course there is the buzz candidate "Fair Game," a movie with social significance that has yet to play. But if it shapes up to be a head-to-head race between those two films, as it well could, we wouldn't bet against Leigh.

At a dinner we attended, several journalists were buzzing about "Another Year" as a 2010 Oscar contender. That's certainly a reasonable proposition, except for one problem -- the movie may well not come out this year. It currently has no distributor in the States. Leigh's last few movies came out from now-defunct companies like Miramax and Fine Line, and this one's a tweener for many of the distributors still extant.

A still-active player like Focus (which is selling international rights to "Another Year") could step up, but the picture feels a little too small for them, while seeming a little too big for the Brit-happy IFC, whose releases are often built around DVD and video on demand. That leaves Sony Pictures Classics as the distributor with the best shot, although that company's fall dance card is filling up fast. It's a topsy-turvy world for Mike Leigh.

-- Steven Zeitchik, reporting from Cannes, France


Photo: Mike Leigh's "Another Year." Credit: Cannes Film Festival

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