After making an uncharacteristic detour into the rarified world of Gilbert and Sullivan with Topsy-Turvy, British filmmaker Mike Leigh returns in his latest movie, All or Nothing, to the kind of hardscrabble, slice-of-life story he’s known for best. The contrast makes the frilly, Victorian politeness of Topsy-Turvy look all the more quaint and alien by comparison.
For All or Nothing, Leigh is back in blue-collar, post-Thatcherite London. He plops us down in the doleful midst of the Bassett family as its members scrape away at earning a living and at making weary, half-hearted gestures in the direction of domesticity. Father Phil (Timothy Spall) drives a jitney cab but never can muster the energy to get up early enough in the morning to get the kind of airport and business fares that would bring in a decent income. (Ardent symbol-hunters need look no further than Phil’s last name for the key to his hangdog character.)
For that matter, he’s never even mustered the energy to marry Penny (Lesley Manville), his Safeway-clerk common-law wife—even though they’ve been together long enough to have two late-teens or early-20s offspring. Their daughter, Rachel (Alison Garland), works as a cleaning lady at a convalescent hospital. Their son, Rory (James Corden), is a bulbous lump of raging id who doesn’t work at anything except eating, sleeping, whining and bellowing at Penny to “feck off” when she timorously complains about his manners.
This inarticulate quartet is the center of Leigh’s movie, but there are other characters under his microscope. Penny’s co-worker Maureen (Ruth Sheen) and her daughter Donna (Helen Coker) live in the same project. So do Neville (Gary McDonald), a co-worker of Phil’s; Neville’s wife, Carol (Marion Bailey), a sodden, useless drunk; and their daughter Samantha (Sally Hawkins), a teenage tart-in-training.
Leigh’s method of filmmaking is to improvise heavily with his cast before finally committing a script to paper. Then, the actors follow what Leigh has written in light of the character insights they’ve gained from their earlier free-association work with him. Leigh’s films are not exactly improvised—all the improvisation goes on before the cameras roll—but they’re not exactly fully scripted, either. When the magic works, he gets characters that bubble up from somewhere deep inside the actors almost without their knowing it. When it doesn’t work—and it doesn’t entirely work here—his movies can seem as though they’re idling in neutral, waiting for the gearshift to kick in.
The gears grind and pop several times during All or Nothing’s 128 minutes, and Leigh stalls a few times before finally pulling away.
Donna finds out she’s pregnant and has as much trouble telling her abusive boyfriend, Ron (Paul Jesson), as her mother, Maureen. Meanwhile, Samantha sets her sights on Ron (hardly knowing the trouble for which she’s asking) while conducting a half-teasing, half-cruel flirtation with a timid neighbor boy (Daniel Mays). These scenes feel exactly like ideas for a script that never quite got written, and Leigh leaves them dangling when he finally hits on the idea he feels like running with.
Somebody has a heart attack, and the medical emergency brings the Bassett family’s lumpen, insensate lives into some kind of focus. Phil looks as if he’s been rudely kicked out of a deep slumber without becoming fully awake. He says to Penny, “You don’t love me anymore,” and all she can think to do is shriek, “What’s that got to do with anything?”
What, indeed? The resolution Leigh comes up with—for Phil, Penny, the cowering Rachel and the bellowing, stupid Rory—feels forced and almost glib, coming as it does after more than two hours of Leigh hammering away at how nasty and brutish their lives are (and, by implication if not by clear example, the lives of everyone around them). But, glib or not, it’s rather sweet and even touching for all that. Another title for the film might be Feast or Famine; Leigh shows us two hours of famine and makes us hungrily grateful for eight minutes of feast.