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.