I was late to Mike Leigh‘s Another Year, missing showings at both the Cannes and Toronto film festivals. But I finally caught up with it a week ago, and now I know it will be fairly intolerable if Lesley Manville, who plays a sad and scattered and increasingly desperate single in Leigh’s masterful film, doesn’t end up as one of the five Best Actress nominees this year. It really is one of those hot-button performances that can’t be shrugged off.

Another Year star Lesley Manville at Manhattan’s Regency hotel — Tuesday, 10.5.10, 10:20 am

By the end of this expansive but absorbing film Manville’s sadness just floors you. She’s Eleanor Rigby with a wine buzz, and you just know from the get-go that her character, Mary, is probably headed for a sad denoument. We’ve all been trained like dogs to expect that “a character with a problem” will be given a shot at repairing that problem sometime late in the second act or early in the third. Not this time.

Another Year is less of a solitary character study than a family ensemble piece. The central characters or anchors, so to speak, are a 50ish couple, Tim and Gerri (Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen), who are friendly with Mary, a divorcee with an occasional susceptibility for fantasy and delusion, and invite her by for brunches and whatnot. (She and Gerri work in the same clinic) There are three other characters who pop in and out, but Mary is the one who’s tragic and teetering, and from our perspective the film becomes almost a kind of death march for the poor woman as the realization sinks in that Mary is stuck and slipping and (God help her) probably doomed.

Mike Leigh is no softy, and Another Year, amusing and finely observed and character-rich as if frequently is, is no walk in the park. But after you’ve seen it there’s no forgetting poor Mary, or, more to the point, the brilliant Ms. Manville.