It isn’t often that a happily married couple serves as the main characters of a movie, much less a presumably well functioning, middle age pair. Yet that is exactly what Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) are. Bearded and graying, he is a geologist. She, also graying and comfortably dowdy, works as a counselor in a medical clinic. But it is their home life that comes under scrutiny in this story.
During the course of a year, they invite a myriad of friends and family into their cozy, comfortable London flat. Most are lost souls seeking an oasis of peace in their troubled lives. One of them is Gerri’s coworker, Mary (Lesley Manville). The single 40-something alcoholic yearns for the kind of love and companionship she witnesses between Tom and Gerri. However her provocative dress and incessant flirting doesn’t attract the type of man she wants. Ken (Peter Wight) another family friend, is an equally lonely soul who satiates himself with alcohol, cigarettes and generous servings at the dinner table. Into this mix comes Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley), an emotionally void man who has a bitter relationship with his grown son Carl (Martin Savage).
Focusing on the almost inconsequential details of daily routines, like making dinner and drinking tea, director Mike Leigh contrasts Tom and Gerri’s happiness with the utter desperation of their guests. Doing their best to support their friends while protecting their relationship with their adult son (Oliver Maltman), the couple maintains their sanity by nurturing a garden in a community plot. The work and fresh vegetables give the pair a shared interest and healthy break from the emotional demands they face. However, a vine-ripened tomato isn’t enough to better the existence of their visitors, especially when those people aren’t willing to pull the weeds out of their own lives.
Without a strong climatic rise or resolution, this British film presents thought-provoking questions rather than high drama. What is happiness? Why do some people seem to have it and others don’t? Will some people ever find joy? While most children won’t have the patience to sit through this meandering storyline, two strong sexual expletives and alcohol use are the biggest content concerns parents will encounter if their kids choose to watch it. Still, with so many sorrowing people around them, this unassuming, ordinary couple becomes the backbone of their small community and demonstrates the strength that can come from a stable marital relationship.