After a brief diversion from his usual style (with 2000’s Topsy Turvy), Mike Leigh is back to making the kinds of deeply character-driven movies he makes best.
Inertia of Poverty
R for Language, some sexuality
Life is Sweet, a bittersweet picture of a British family trying to make it in the restaurant biz.
All or Nothing follows three poor British families. They live in a Soviet-style apartment complex that lacks soul. It’s a depressing place, and these people call it home.
Phil (Timothy Spall) drives a cab and his common-law wife Penny (Lesley Manville) works at a grocery store. Their son Rory (James Corden) is obese and inert, usually found sprawled on the futon in front of the TV. Their daughter Rachel (Alison Garland) is also obese but less inert, working at the old folks’ home. None of them are happy about their lives. Phil and Penny try to find small pleasures in their situation as a family, but the two teenagers are stubbornly bored and sullen.
Down the hall live Penny’s chinless co-worker Maureen (Ruth Sheen) and her daughter Donna (Helen Coker). Donna is rebellious, but Maureen perseveres in trying to be Donna’s friend as well as her mother. Though their communication is occasionally abrasive, there is a deeper love between them.
Finally, Phil’s co-worker Ron (Paul Jesson) lives with his wife Carol (Marion Bailey) and daughter Samantha (Sally Hawkins). Ron and his wife are often anesthetized with alcohol while Samantha goes out prowling for boys.
Instead of a Story
As with most of Leigh’s movies, All or Nothing is more about characters than plot. There is nothing like what you’d call a story, but there are a series of events, and even a climax of sorts.
Donna gets pregnant, which fuels a change in her relationship with her boyfriend and with her mother. Rachel gets asked on a date by a man three times her age, and she reacts as she does to all of life’s problems: she pretends it never happened. Playing football with some friends, young Rory suffers a heart attack, triggering a panic in his already fragile mother. Throughout the movie, steady and repetitive like a bass line, are Phil’s passengers.
The big climax is an argument between Phil and Penny. Penny has been hounding him because he turned off his radio and cell phone, coincidentally on the day that Rory had his heart attack. Phil was going through a funk and he simply needed to disconnect from the world for a while. He retaliates by saying that Penny doesn’t love him, that she has never loved him, and that without her love he might as well die.
Faking a Climax
The climax is extremely well acted. Spall and Manville pour their hearts into their performances, which makes it all the more disappointing that the scene doesn’t work. Spall’s “you don’t love me” comes as a surprise and is frankly a little hard to swallow. Taken out of context, his delivery is very convincing, but throughout the movie, Penny has proven to be a caring and devoted partner, so if Phil feels unloved, it’s news to us.
There is also a problem with the scene playing as a climax at all. This “climax” is just a big scene that happens to come at the end of the movie, not a scene towards which the movie was building. It stands starkly alone at the end of the film.
It pretends that All or Nothing has always been primarily about these characters, and not about Donna’s pregnancy or her mother’s stiff upper lip, or Samantha’s dangerously slutty behavior. The scene is a denial, not a culmination, of the events earlier in the movie.
The fake climax does detract from All or Nothing, but the film won’t detract from Mike Leigh’s, Timothy Spall’s or anyone else’s reputation. Just because one scene didn’t work doesn’t mean that the talent and effort is for naught. Any actor who works with Leigh (under his system of spending months with his actors developing characters, before even writing a script) can only get better.
In fact, it’s very good to see Leigh doing his character-driven movie again after Topsy Turvy. I look forward to the next Leigh film. And the next, and the next.