|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
2003), 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
Running time: 128 mins.
|© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.