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Life is Bittersweet

The New Mike Leigh Film is a Lot Like Old Mike Leigh--Not That There's Anything Wrong With That

Working-Class Heroes: Lesley Manville and Timothy Spall muddle through in All Or Nothing.

By Eric Allen Hatch | Posted

As Mike Leigh's outstanding new film All or Nothing opens, an overweight young woman mops the hallway of the nursing home where she works. Her progress mirrors the movements of the ailing seniors around her--slow and deliberate, depressed but determined. We're instantly transported into Leigh's world, where the oppressive details of everyday life often feel like a struggle against insurmountable odds. And we follow these struggles on the edge of our seats, because the world Leigh shows us has everything in common with our own.

This young woman, we eventually learn, is Rachel (Alison Garland), daughter to our beleaguered hero, Phil (Timothy Spall). Phil, often pathetic but rarely unsympathetic, drives a cab. His wife, Penny (Lesley Manville), a supermarket clerk, wishes Phil would earn more money for their family, which also includes Rory (James Corden), a conflicted teen dealing with a severe weight problem and uncontrollable rages. The kind, quiet Phil clearly loves his family, but he fears that this love is no longer reciprocated. Even worse, he understands, as we do, his shortcomings. He probably could work harder. He certainly should take a more active role helping his children cope with the difficulties of adolescence. Above all, he can't fault his family for being emotionally distant when he himself is a perfect model for such behavior.

More so even than most Leigh films, All or Nothing houses a staggering array of living, breathing characters. As with the sublime community portraits of Robert Altman and John Sayles, far too many characters, all complexly interrelated, exist here to mention in this space. Indeed, each could probably sustain a compelling feature film alone. All or Nothing flirts with these possibilities, rotating different friends and neighbors to the forefront, until a grave incident makes Phil and his family the film's almost-exclusive focus. We can gauge how deeply the film's other characters have affected us by how much they're missed as they recede into the background. For instance, Ruth Sheen's Maureen, the film's most well-adjusted character and its most devastating wit, has her hands full with her teenaged daughter's man troubles. Her story resonates as deeply as that of Phil's family.

But Spall and Manville more than rise to the challenge of carrying All or Nothing through its hypnotic climax. The film builds toward these characters honestly assessing their relationship, and the penetrating scenes in which they do rank among the most emotionally naked in the work of a director who specializes in just that. As with every Leigh film, his actors helped shape the narrative and their dialog through weeks of improvisatory exercises in character, a process that greatly amplifies the emotional realism of the director's work.

For co-crafting bleak characters and situations, Leigh often is accused of pessimism, or even misanthropy. Quite the contrary, Leigh's respect for his characters is evidenced by their unmistakable humanity, and his work often strikes poignantly hopeful notes. High Hopes (1988) focused on two socialist lovers withstanding the bitter disappointments of Thatcher's England. But in that film's wonderfully believable conclusion, the couple takes their curmudgeonly matron onto their roof, where she gasps in wonder at a view, entirely new to her, of her lifelong hometown. This moment provides an epiphany typical of Leigh's work: Life can be terrible, sometimes unrelentingly so, but it also contains moments of childlike wonder and boundless possibility that, if fleeting, can rejuvenate us and sustain us.

All or Nothing does not end without rewarding viewers with several such moments. Crucially, these revelatory moments of renewal do not come easily. Leigh and company know that easy resolutions for these complicated characters would ring hollow; they make us work for catharsis. Consequently, the strides made by these characters ring true.

Remarkably, a critical backlash against All or Nothing has emerged. Detractors argue that after a decade of grappling with more diverse scenarios in films like Naked (1993) and Topsy-Turvy (1999), Leigh has retrenched to the working-class domestic dramas he mastered in the '70s and '80s. Critics voicing this argument would do well to revisit Leigh's earlier works. While less heralded than Naked or Secrets and Lies (1996), both Life Is Sweet (1990) and High Hopes equal those acknowledged masterpieces; many of Leigh's previous British TV features, notably Home Sweet Home (1982) and Grown-Ups (1980), are just as fantastic. And these critics miss Leigh's larger point in using impoverished characters as a common thread throughout his career: Decades of political promises have improved nothing for the working class. Far from a regression, Leigh's return to his roots makes for some of the most honest and vital cinema around.

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