The great British film director Mike Leigh has come out with a new film –
not that you’d be likely to have noticed if you live in the US. Despite critical
and commercial success with his last three releases, Secrets & Lies,
Career Girls, and Topsy-Turvy, All
or Nothing seems to have vanished without a trace, playing at 15 cinemas
for two weeks and then disappearing altogether. I saw it at my local second-run
art-house cinema (not too many of those to go round) only one month after it
But in a way, it’s more surprising that Secrets & Lies ended up
with with more than $13 million at the box office and an Oscar nomination to
boot than it is that All or Nothing has managed to pull in less than
one percent of that figure. Insofar as UK films do well across the pond, they
seem to be either costume dramas or comedies; Mike Leigh, on the other hand,
specialises in the kind of closely-observed working-class kitchen-sink pieces
which generally don’t do well even when it’s a big-name American helming.
And while Brenda Blethyn had a wonderful opportunity, in Secrets &
Lies, to indulge in wide-barrelled melodrama, Timothy Spall, in All
or Nothing, is quite the opposite: shut up, worn down, a man who essentially
has the same expression on his face for 90% of the film. Here he shows nothing
of the natural exuberance we saw in Life is Sweet: his south London
minicab driver would consider liver in lager to be a depressing joke rather
than an unmissable business opportunity.
The film is set over a long weekend on a typically bleak council estate, where
we concentrate on three families struggling to keep things together. Spall has
a common-law wife (Lesley Manville) who despairs of the situation she’s found
herself in, and eventually cracks; an overweight daughter (Alison Garland) who
never even comes close to breaking out of her shell; and an even more overweight
son (James Corden) who rages in a late-adolescent way against everything and
everyone, especially his mother. Meanwhile, a single mother watches her daughter
fall pregnant by an angry and abusive young man, and the daughter of a pair
of alcoholics tries to demonstrate some degree of control over her life by teasing
a shy young boy and stealing other girls’ boyfriends.
But All or Nothing is not unremittingly bleak in the way that, say,
Nil by Mouth was. In a rare case of directorial flinching, Leigh actually
provides the film with two endings. The first comes at the emotional climax
of the film, when Spall finally breaks down and Manville attempts to comfort
him. Tellingly, however, Manville never requites Spall’s declaration of love,
and after they kiss, we get the following exchange (or something very like it):
Spall: Shall we go to bed?
Manville: Yes, we’ve got to get up very early.
We then fade to black, and enter the coda: an upbeat scene in a hospital, of
all places, where everybody seems to have had an overnight spa treatment and
laughter flows freely. The other story lines are forgotten: we leave the drunks
passed out over each other, and the single mother and her single mother-to-be
stuck on the sofa, with nowhere to turn. Only the drunks’ daughter (Sally Hawkins,
in a role which recapitulates that of Jane Horrocks in Life is Sweet)
seems to have learned anything, shocked into reality by the degree to which
her teasing has been taken seriously. We only appreciate the power we have when
we see it go too far.
One thing for which we really should be grateful is the way in which Leigh
is attempting to break the mold of gritty, working-class filmmaking by spending
a lot of time and effort lighting and framing every shot. No hand-held graininess
here: Leigh is closer, in this sense, to Spike Lee than he is to someone like
Ken Loach. The director of photography, Dick Pope, doesn’t romanticise the housing
estate, but he gives the characters dignity by shooting them all with the care
and attention that he would give a king.
That said, All or Nothing will work very well on the small screen
as well as in the cinema. If you’ve missed your chance to grab its theatrical
release, I highly recommend you rent it when you get the chance.