Produced by Simon Channing Williams and Alain Sarde,
Starring Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Alison Garland, James Corden, Ruth Sheen, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Sam Kelly, Kathryn Hunter, Sally Hawkins, Helen Coker, Daniel Mays, Ben Compton, Robert Wilford.
Mike Leigh is currently Britain’s foremost, multi-award-winning director. He is noted for his uncompromising depictions of ordinary people, pimples and all. Known for his deliberately non-polished style, for the most part his loose-ended stories could not be less like Hollywood in their plotlines, characterisations or social settings. His improvisational methods are famous – he begins with a loose idea of a story or a situation, rehearses the characters for months and then films an improvisation with results that can be astonishing and brilliant as well as occasionally messy. The feel is spontaneous and truthful, as ambiguous as life.
Apart from Leigh’s last film, Topsy-Turvy, in 1999, a film about the 19th century British operetta librettist and composer Gilbert and Sullivan, his subjects are usually contemporary working class people (as in this film) or middle class (Career Girls, 1997). As he passionately goes for truth rather than glamour, (although Topsy-Turvy revelled in the artificiality of the theatre) there is sometimes a tendency in commentators and critics to overcompensate for some less than ideal elements in favour of the worthiness of his achievements. Mike Leigh films are rarely aimed at pure entertainment although they are often funny because they are true. They are more a mirror to certain aspects of real life, inviting us to reflect on the implications of people’s lives and how they live them, inviting us also to look at ourselves and our reactions to what we see.
Nevertheless, I came away from this film feeling that something more is needed, something perhaps just a little likable or admirable about his subjects. No matter how good the acting (and it is good) it is difficult to like this film.
All or Nothing is about a South-East London working class family who do not have the cunning to put on a façade nor the emotional nor educational resources to go about their lives in any other way but the way in which they have been conditioned. They live in a flat on a council estate that is as soulless and impoverished as it is bleak. These people either grind away at each other in barely suppressed hostility, make sly sexual swipes or retreat into inarticulate isolation with few alternatives or solutions to the pressures under which they find themselves. Watching the film is like being a fly-on-the wall to some half-witted sloths on a caged treadmill.
Timothy Spall plays Phil, a mini-cab driver who resembles most a slack-jawed, unshaven, greasy haired, stunned mullet. Penny (Lesley Manville) is his common-law wife who works in a supermarket checkout. Her thin shoulders and drawn face show her dissatisfaction with the way her life has turned out and the daily frustrations and deprivations she must put up with. Their past-school-age children are Rachel (Alison Garland), who works in an old people’s home as a cleaner, and Rory (James Corden), unemployed. Both are overweight, Rachel’s dull apathy and Rory’s belligerent aggression stemming from the same lack of options in their lives. The whole dreary family situation is epitomised by the jumbo pack of long-life hamburger buns Penny brings home from the supermarket. The buns will last four months, but will require filling beyond their wherewithal to provide and are therefore worse than useless. The note of absurdity this element introduces could, were it developed, be the saving of the film. Unfortunately it falls insignificantly into the rest of these characters’ grey and fractious lives.
Some peripheral but well-drawn characters are their neighbours Ron (Paul Jesson), fellow mini-cab driver, his alcoholic wife Carol (Marion Bailey) and their unemployed and insolent daughter Samantha (Sally Hawkins). Samantha hangs provocatively around the estate like a leech in micro shorts waiting for any male to latch on to. Ben Crompton plays a pathetic loser named Craig, who desperately, mutely wants Samantha. His one attempt at articulating his feelings is shockingly extreme but is as sadly ineffective as the rest of his life.
Maureen (Ruth Sheen) is Penny’s co-worker in the supermarket, the Teflon-coated, ever-cheery mother of Donna (Helen Coker) who has an abusive boyfriend named Jason. Their story parallels Phil and Penny’s in that a crisis draws them closer together. Their need for each other can be admitted and they can relate more honestly. Maureen is the one upbeat character in the movie, and apart from Samantha is the only one who can act appropriately in a crisis. At Rachel’s nursing home a creepy older cleaner named Sid (Sam Kelly) makes inappropriate remarks to her, escalating his intention by degrees because Rachel is completely out of her depth, so unassertive and flat that he can have no clue that he has upset her or indeed made any impression at all.
The crisis that affects Phil, Penny, Rachel and Rory causes change but no solution. We know there will be other problems that are caused by one family member’s health crisis taking everyone’s attention off their own situation. The way the crisis works most effectively to create change is to allow Phil, whose sad philosophising has cemented him into apathy, to express his fear, need and loneliness to Penny. And Penny in turn finds a human compassion with which she can respond. It is perhaps the only level on which they can relate.
This example of Mike Leigh’s grey and dreary Cinéma Verité is an exercise in showing apathy, alienation and isolation. It reminded me in parts of Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den – without the masterful irony and absurdist touch of the Japanese master – of impoverished human animals scraping an existence in the ruins of post war Tokyo. Here we are shown a bunch of spitting cats instinctively coupling and fighting like animals, who only reach out to each other like human beings when they are shocked out of repetitive tedium by crisis. Not an attractive experience: the most that can be said for it is an overwhelming relief that we can walk away from the theatre back to our middle-class (and infinitely better) lives, perhaps in exactly the way we are least meant to. One wonders at the purpose of a film like this, when the target audience is unlikely ever to get to the cinema to see it, and if they do, there is little suggested as a remedy or an alternative.
© Avril Carruthers May 2nd 2003
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