All or Nothing

             With this year's demise of FilmFour, there's been a lot of debate in the United Kingdom
     over the fate of "British cinema" with many local critics complaining of the prevalence of
     American influence on contemporary English, Scottish and Welsh filmmakers. If one were
     to take the most  pessimistic view, one would think that British cinema should be added to
     the endangered species list.  Well, like another "fabulous invalid" [the American theater], it
     only requires a handful of promising movies to galvanize and re-energize the flagging
     industry. 2002 has already seen several impressive films that push boundaries, engender
     controversy and/or take other risks, including  
The Lawless Heart (released in the US in
AKA, Morvern Caller, and Sweet Sixteen. The latter was directed by former
     iconoclast Ken Loach, who along with Mike Leigh, has moved from the fringes to inherit
     the mantle of veteran filmmaker.

            All or Nothing, the latest offering from Mike Leigh, feels almost like a distillation of
     many of his previous films. Leigh's movie making process has been well documented: he
     commences with an idea, gathers his cast of actors and allows them to develop their roles
     and the script via improvisation. Like Woody Allen, Leigh has a tendency to explore similar
     themes in his films,most notably the complexities of familial dysfunction. (Unlike Allen's movies,
     however, a Mike Leigh film is more likely to focus on the economically deprived.) The overall
     effects are bleak and emotionally raw, but dramatically loose, much like "real life."

             Building on familiar Leigh territory,
All or Nothing focuses on the denizens of a
     south London council estate (what Americans might call a "project"). The central figures of
     the drama are Phil (Timothy Spall), a depressed cab driver, and his common-law spouse
     Penny (Lesley Manville), a supermarket cashier. Barely scraping by on their combined
     income, they have raised two overweight children, the stoic Rachel (Alison Garland), who
     toils as a cleaner at an old age home, and the foul-mouthed, belligerent, and lazy Rory
     (James Corden), who spends his day moving from the dinner table to the couch when
     he's not out picking fights while playing soccer with the neighbors. These are people
     definitely living lives of quiet desperation.

             Leigh gives the audience glimpses of their neighbors (any one of which may have been
     a protagonist in a drama). There's Penny's co-worker and pal Maureen (the superb Ruth
     Sheen), whose positive outlook and chirpy demeanor makes her seem an alien in this
     territory. Maureen is a single mother raising the sullen Donna (Helen Coker), who has
     recently learned she's pregnant by her boorish, bullying boyfriend. By the film's end, these
     two women come to realize just how alike they are and begin to move toward reconciliation.
     Then there are Ron (Paul Jesson), who works with Phil, and his alcoholic wife Carol (Marion
     Bailey) and their sexpot daughter Samantha (Sally Hawkins), who is clearly on her way
     to a life as a prostitute as her means of escape.

             Because the director hires a mix of professionals and amateurs, the acting in a Leigh
     film can be hit or miss. In the case of
All or Nothing, though, it's mostly hits. Spall, with
     his lanky hair and perpetually hangdog expression, dominates the film. He is collapsing
     into himself with frustration, browbeaten by his wife and kids. (When his son curses and
     shouts at his mother, Spall's Phil seems to retreat even farther into himself and mutters
     things like "Rory's at a difficult age.") There are sequences of Phil and his passengers,
     none of whom seem to make an impression on him, except for a French woman
     (Kathryn Hunter in a scene-stealing turn) who asks the driver such personal questions
     that she sparks a bout of contemplation that it causes Phil to spend a day alone. It
     happens that a family near-tragedy occurs which is the final catalyst for a heartbreaking
     confrontation between Phil and Penny that leads to a tentative truce and as close to a
     happy ending as Leigh can muster.

             Lesley Manville is superlative as Penny, a small birdlike woman made bitter by her
     circumstances. Her Penny is perpetually annoyed, with the tedium of her job, with frustration
     at her seemingly unambitious spouse who appears to have passed on to their son the
     same quality. The actress offers a delicately layered performance that is anchored in
     reality and at times it becomes almost too painful to watch her, but the audience cannot
     turn away. She is the perfect embodiment of the film's title. For Manville and her
     character, it truly is
All or Nothing.


Rating:                            A -
MPAA Rating:               R for pervasive language, some sexuality, and
                                                                                       brief nudity
  Running time:              128 mins.
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.