Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are Tom and Gerri, the happily married contented couple sliding into their late middle years, happy with their work and home and each other, and working on their garden allotment. By contrast their happiness highlights and maybe exacerbates the misery of their friends, particularly Mary (Lesley Manville), Gerri's colleague from work whose loneliness and misery increases through the year as she despairingly latches onto them. It seems by the end though that Tom and particularly Gerri won't be tolerating her much longer ....or are they patronising her?
The films begins (and ends) with a closeup of a woman in misery - it starts with Imelda Staunton (Leigh's VERA DRAKE, but only here briefly) - with her doctor who passes her on to counsellor Gerri, who then gives her notes to Mary to type. Mary visits Tom and Gerri regularly and they seem very patient with her. Mary is 40 going on 17 - who cannot hold a relationship and drinks too much - as she does here and has to be put to bed for the night. Their diffident son then arrives on the scene and seems to be humouring Mary (at a Summer party) and agrees to go out for a drink with her, but of course he doesn't and at the next gathering he has a girlfriend of his own, driving Mary further into despair. Another friend Ken - a desperate overweight middle aged man who is a coronary waiting to happen, with his continual eating, drinking and smoking - expresses interest in renewing a relationship with Mary but that is not on the cards. The saga of Mary's car sums up her inability to get to grips with her problems. There is a birth (the doctor is pregnant) and a funeral - Tom's brother's wife dies up in Nottingham, so the family head up for a rather unnecessary funeral sequence which is rather laboured. David Bradley is Ronnie the shattered husband whom they bring back to London for a while - then while they are out at the allotment Mary turns up in a wretched state and tries to establish a rapport with Ronnie, but Tom and Gerri are not pleased when they return. Turning up out of the blue is not really tolerated .... we end as the camera circles the family table as Tom, Gerri, the son and girlfriend chat among themselves with Ronnie and an anguished Mary left really to themselves. Family life can be cruel too, leaving out those not in the inner circle... one is reminded a few times of Ozu's TOKTO STORY and its refrain of "Isn't life disappointing".
It is certainly Leigh's best and most engrossing film since that masterpeice SECRETS AND LIES - the actors as usual do not seem to be acting at all but totally inhabit their roles, which of course they create in a workshop with Leigh before commencing shooting. Lesley Manville is totally astounding and will have to clear her mantlepiece for all those awards she should be getting for the bleak life she unfolds here.