Perhaps Mike Leigh’s unusual blend of social consciousness and improvisational technique is running out of gas. His latest effort showcases some fine acting and includes a few deeply powerful moments, but in comparison to his earlier films it seems a disappointingly thin slice of lower-class London life; despite the title, “All or Nothing” amounts to surprisingly little.
The script, fashioned as usual by Leigh in conjunction with the performers, centers on a group of families who are neighbors in a seedy south London apartment complex. Most of the action–or more often inaction–centers on the Bassetts: hangdog-faced Phil (Timothy Spall), a chubby cab driver with little drive and less ambition; his mousy common-law wife Penny (Lesley Manville), who works as a grocery checker; and their overweight children Rachel (Alison Garland) and Rory (James Corden). The girl is a sorrowful, contemplative sort who works as a general factotum at a nursing home, while the boy is a bitter, lazy layabout constantly at odds with his mother. Down the hall lives Maueeen (Ruth Sheen), who does laundry and ironing on the side to support her surly daughter Donna (Helen Coker), a waitress having a difficult time with her bullying boyfriend Jason (Daniel Mays). Finally there’s Ron (Paul Jesson), also a cab driver (but one consistently getting into accidents), and his alcoholic wife Carol (Marion Bailey); their vivacious daughter Samantha (Sally Hawkins) has the hots for Jason, but is being stalked by a strange and vaguely creeper admirer called Craig (Ben Crompton).
With the exception of single mom Maureen, who’s consistently up and perky (and, during an open mic night at a local pub, shows a flair for singing too) and, to a lesser extent, the ambitious Samantha, all of the characters exhibit little but hopelessness, regret and resignation. Old Phil, for instance, goes about in a perpetual daze, barely lifting his eyelids and musing about death at every opportunity, and Penny is angry with the dismal rut into which her life has fallen. The younger generation seems even more pathetic, with as few prospects as their parents but more time for suffering. (Rachel is sweet, to be sure, but somehow that makes her plight all the more sad, especially when she’s propositioned by an old geezer who works beside her.)
As usual, Leigh is adept at capturing the desolation of life among members of the economic underclass in contemporary Britain (the gritty locations and plain photography help), and there are inevitably flashes of insight in his film. But overall the characters, perhaps because of their large number, never emerge as much more than sketches. Nor do many of the plot lines go very far. The Donna-Samantha-Jason triangle is left hanging, for instance, and Samantha’s encounter with her stalker is never resolved. Phil’s unhappiness plays out in one episode in which he goes off by himself to the shore, and in another during which he has a long conversation with a snooty Algerian fare (Diveen Henry), but neither sequence is particularly revelatory. In fact, in order to keep things moving at all, the writer-director and his cast make use of the most obvious melodramatic devices–a sudden heart attack, the announcement of a pregnancy–which would never have surfaced in his more astutely-constructed features. The final reel, moreover, which centers on one couple’s reconciliation and rediscovery of their love, becomes (despite excellent acting) more schmaltzy than Leigh’s norm; the message that even in lives of such misery, love and a certain crude happiness can triumph doesn’t quite ring true. You can sense that Leigh doesn’t quite buy it himself.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some good things on display here–Spall’s restrained turn and Sheen’s good-natured enthusiasm, most notably. (On the other hand, Bailey, Mays and Crompton offer little more than caricatures, and Coker and Hawkins aren’t far superior.) “All or Nothing” isn’t entirely fine or utterly poor, but it’s less than one might have expected from a filmmaker of Leigh’s past accomplishments.