Portrayals of the Good

Over the weekend I saw Mike Leigh’s Another Year, a film that follows a year in the life of a 60something British couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) who age gracefully together amidst a messy array of family members and acquaintances. As they open their home and serve up grace to a parade of sad, lonely alcoholics, this couple provide a centered, stable calm in the storm. Their house is a haven, a place to escape–where good food, happy company, wise counsel and unconditional love are guaranteed. A rarity. But oh so needed.

Following on the heels of his last film, Happy-Go-Lucky, which also sought to portray a character of genuine optimism and grace, Mike Leigh’s Another Year reminds us how valuable and necessary are models of hope and goodness in our lives. We live in such a cynical age, when being a mess is sort of a rite-of-passage and everyone’s baggage is out in the open and almost fetishized.

We live in a time when “authenticity” is equated with those things or those people who are forthright in their brokenness and messiness, while stable, happy people are sometimes looked upon with skepticism, as if their lack of apparent problems makes them phony or untrustworthy. Our jadedness leads us to a sort of self-reinforcing stasis of raw brokenness, because this is what we believe. This is what we know. But what we really need are models of goodness & virtue in our lives… figures of hope who can motivate us out of the cycle of dreary cynicism.

Another Year offers a great example of such people–a happily married, flourishing couple who love people in need but don’t pander to them. They stand film in their principles without condescending to those struggling around them (most notably Lesley Manville, who delivers a tour-de-force performance as a clingy trainwreck of a friend who is stuck in a cycle of depression).

The couple in Another Year reminded me of Eric and Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights, the heartbeat center of that show and a couple who consistently offer wisdom, love, and empathy for those struggling around them. They aren’t without their own problems, of course, but they nevertheless are looked to because they more together than most. They model goodness and hope in a culture overwhelmed with badness and despair. We need models like them, to show us that happiness is within reach and that selflessness, charity, restraint and discipline can help get us there.

In Hollywood, truly good characters don’t get the attention and accolades that crazy, messed-up characters do.  It’s much easier to win awards by playing a convincing evil (Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight) or a convincing trainwreck (Christian Bale in The Fighter) than by portraying a solid, stable, virtuous character. Even in Another Year, the marquee, award-winning performance is that of Lesley Manville–who is riveting and truthful as a single, sad, mess of a person. Why is this more riveting, truthful, and laudable to us than Ruth Sheen’s less showy, but no less truthful portrayal of a good friend? Why is Christian Bale’s wild-eyed druggie turn in The Fighter so much more acclaimed than Mark Wahlberg’s good-brother, reliable workhorse role? (a question alluded to by Bale in his Golden Globes acceptance speech).

I think we need more strong, solid, good characters to admire in our movies and TV. Characters like Helena Bonham Carter’s in The King’s Speech, or Hailie Steinfield’s in True Grit. Characters that help the struggling get better, characters that embody hope and growth and goodness, untainted by cynicism or despair. Because those people exist. And we need more of them in our lives.

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9 responses to “Portrayals of the Good

  1. I was so disappointed when Sally Hawkins didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for her performance in “Happy-Go-Lucky.” I’d argue that it’s far more difficult to portray a character that is genuinely good than the evil or twisted one. To be honest, it’s far harder to relate to. When I watch Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood,” I’m struck with the dual thoughts of, “boy, I’m glad I’m not that guy!” and, “Deep down, that is me.”

    When I encounter someone experiencing genuine joy, whether in film or or in real life, it’s often elicits bewilderment, even awe. I think it’s because I’m encountering something transcendent.

  2. Your closing paragraph is also a great call/encouragement for us to BE those people. Thanks for sharing, and I look forward to checking out “Another Year”.

  3. So glad you mentioned the Taylor’s from Friday Night Lights. Their portrayal is one of the most realistic relationships I’ve ever seen on TV. The writers and actors do a wonderful job on a truly underrated gem of a show that full of triumph and tragedy.

    I wrote this last year:
    “Although the show has many characters the most prominent are coach Eric Taylor and is principal wife Tami. This couple are the heart of the show. I’ve never seen a marriage portrayed so true to life then what you see between Eric and Tami. It’s so good to see people portrayed in such a loving, realistic manner. They’re not perfect and have problems but they mange to make thing work. With all the narcissistic characters portrayed on TV it’s refreshing to see a couple who are dedicated to each other, their family and town.”

  4. “In Hollywood, truly good sex doesn’t get the attention and accolades that crazy, messed-up sex does.”

    I couldn’t have said it better myself!

  5. Thank you for the great review. Your thoughts on authentic characters needing to be flawed and broken really hit the mark for me. This has been a personal struggle with me as I’ve gone rounds and rounds in cycles of depression.
    The film characters I most identify with are broken and disappointed people like Paul Giamatti’s character inSideways, Mark Ruffalo’s character in You Can Count on Me among others Somehow being successful and having stable relationships often seems dull and bland. Selling out. Man in the gray flannel suit. I’m going to go see this today. Thanks again.

  6. Thanks for this post. I couldn’t agree more that we need to stop thinking that dysfunctional people are the only believable people – or the only interesting people. I write books about decent people trying to do the right thing, and I often feel like a voice crying in the wilderness!
    Good Books

  7. Good call. Its interesting to think about what gets applauded the most in our nation. What do you think the best way to put marriages and healthy family life and friends on display would be in the media? Its funny because some of my favorite movies are the ones where I resonate with the mess, but it can also be discouraging because you know YOUR mess won’t be fixed in 2 hours. Is there a way to applaud healthy relationships and still make a good movie? Is this even important?

  8. Pingback: Portrayals of the Good « To Be An Electric Telegraph

  9. I saw this film last week. My toughts on the movie are similar to yours. This couple represents to me the good things in live that comes from harmony with nature, respect with the feelings of others and a profund will to live well, sourrounded by friendship, good food and good conversations.

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