Mike Leigh is apparently known for capturing authentic slices of the lives of Londoners and judging by this film his reputation is well deserved. English eccentricities abound but never devolve into caricature.
The story is told in four sections, for each of the seasons of the year. We first encounter Tom and Gerri working the soil in their "allotment," their tiny plot in a communal garden. They work together in harmony here, as they do in the kitchen and seemingly everywhere, but the careful way in which they tend to their garden season by season is a beautiful metaphor for the way in which they have cultivated their own marriage relationship and the fruit it has borne. The film attempts to illustrate this point by introducing in the final section, the winter season, Tom's brother Ronnie Hepple whose wife has just died. We are quick to learn that Ronnie's marriage was not of the same sort as Tom's. Both brothers have only one son, and Tom and Gerri's 30-year-old Joe dutifully reports with his family to visit Ronnie in his grief, but Ronnie's own son, Carl, unseen for two years, is nowhere to be found until the priest pronounces the final prayer book funeral benediction. He arrives only to argue with his father and the rest of the small group of mourners, an angry man and the product of an unhappy union. Likewise, aside from Tom, Gerri and Joe, only three mourners show up for Ronnie's wife's funeral, and his home is nothing like the haven of the other Hepple brother.
The film is a beautiful picture of a happy marriage, the easy companionship it brings, and the attraction it holds for others. We are never let too far inside this contented couple's lives, and whatever difficulties they weathered on the road to such tranquility are hidden from our view. But we see the pull of a home filled with love and acceptance, with people who truly know each other and live in harmony. Such a place is indeed a sanctuary, and a picture of what so many long for and of what the family is meant to be.