As Mary, Manville risks appearing like a caricature in the early scenes, hoisting her cleavage in tight-fitting tops and cooing with too much enthusiasm in exchanges of small-talk. She looks like the archetypal bubbly secretary to a team of NHS care staff, but it soon becomes apparent that she is, as the character, acting the part. The friends who know her best (her only friends) are Gerri (the mumsy Ruth Sheen), a counsellor she's worked with for years, and Gerri's husband Tom (Jim Broadbent).
Manville gets plenty of laughs as she turns up for what is obviously a regular dinner date with Gerri and Tom only to end up drunk and staying the night (again…). Broadbent is wryly funny too, barely able to keep from rolling his eyes as he listens for the umpteenth time to a sob story about her last failed relationship - with a married man. The humour borders on cruel, but Leigh pulls back, often using Gerri to remind us that Mary is in pain, albeit a victim of her own carelessness.
As you'd expect from a Mike Leigh film, there are no grand set-ups, but the process of Mary's unravelling is sped up, over the course of a year, by another romantic disappointment. Though in her fifties, she entertains the notion that Gerri and Tom's son, a thirty-year-old community lawyer (Oliver Maltman), might some day make good on his constant flirting. He's a somewhat bumbling character too - vaguely reminiscent of David Brent - but Mary stops laughing when he brings home a girlfriend (Karina Fernandez). The mood darkens and Mary fades into the background.
Manville remains off-screen for a disconcerting period as Leigh follows Gerri and Tom out of London to the funeral of his brother's wife. This episode plays out almost like a film within a film as brother Ronnie (David Bradley) contemplates old age without his other half. On the face of it, Gerri and Tom are the anchors of the film with their completely balanced approach to life, but this can make them emotionally remote (almost robotic), and they struggle to keep this segment as interesting.
It is Mary's chaotic behaviour that provides the rhythm of the film and the gradual stripping away of her armour (push-up bras and war paint) that draws you in. Towards the end, she does find the limit of Gerri's patience, which suddenly makes Gerri more interesting as well. The tension builds to the point of unbearable as they gather around the table for another of Gerri's famous dinners, and though Leigh shows restraint in keeping the plates intact, the final result is truly shattering.
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