All or Nothing,
128 mins, opening in cinemas nationwide on 17 April 2003
Rated – SIMMERING
Mike Leigh is a director known for his searing, intense dramas, usually
portraying English working-class life. Of these, the two best
known to Australians would be Naked (1993) and Secrets and Lies
(1996). The bitterly funny and disturbing Naked won Leigh a Best
Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. Secrets and Lies also
won awards for Leigh and his lead actress Brenda Blethyn. Then
there is the atypical Topsy-Turvy (1999), the story of Gilbert and
Sullivan, perhaps Leigh’s most popular film to date.
The film is a grim look at the social problems of grinding
working-class life. Leigh’s technique is to work closely with his
actors, without a script, to develop characters first, and to let the
story emerge from there. He often works with the same
actors – Alison Steadman, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Jim Broadbent,
and the late Katrin Cartlidge (not all exactly household names, but
wonderful character actors, especially in an ensemble cast).
All or Nothing stars Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville as husband and
wife Phil and Penny, who are chronically short of money. This is
their story and the stories of their neighbours in a council
estate. Phil is a taxi driver who has lost the will to
work. Penny works hard but is tired and exasperated. She is
no longer in love with Phil, but is too tired to do anything about
it. Their daughter, Rachel, is a cleaner in a home for elderly
people – a dispiriting job for a young person. Their son, Rory,
is unemployed, lazy and aggressive. He fights with his
mother. Things look hopeless. But something happens to
change their relationships and make Phil and Penny face up to what has
happened to them over the years.
Leigh uses this fascinating microcosm to examine important social
problems. For example, many of the characters are gratuitously
angry and aggressive. Phil’s taxi-driver friend, Ron (Paul
Jesson) drives recklessly and has accidents. The taxi passengers
are obnoxious. Young girls are routinely abused by their
boyfriends. Rory is angry about everything. Some use
alcohol to numb their pain. It’s a grim life. But it is
funny too: Leigh’s scripts always contain just enough humour and wit to
leaven the bleakness of his characters’ lives.
And Leigh shows us there’s light at the end of the tunnel. If
there was love to begin with, then the odds are it is still there and
it can bring comfort and strength enough to get us through whatever
life can throw at us. Or, as Phil – who is something of a
muddled philosopher – tells Penny: “Love is like a dripping tap.
The bucket’s either half-full or half-empty. You are either alone
or together.” Best take together.
© Michèle M Asprey 2003