All or Nothing

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.

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3 Responses to All or Nothing

  1. Rhian says:

    The last two films I saw before I set sail for Antarctica were ‘All or

    Nothing’ (Mike Leigh) and ‘Sweet Sixteen’ (Loach). The former I thought was

    good..until I saw the latter and realised everything that the first was

    missing. Please, if you want to see a gritty UK film, see Sweet Sixteen

    and send me the review.

  2. Erika says:

    Ah, but what extra pleasure for a South Londoner to see this film. The drive through the Blackwall Tunnel, and was it Margate where he went to?

    I loved the film.


  3. Raeann says:

    I am producer/engineer and want to do stuff with Jeffrey Citron. Get this and get him to read my email and I will figure out some way to repay you. If he likes what I have to say, I will cut you in and owe you for the rest of my life.

    Please if you know, just at least forward.



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