ALL OR NOTHING
Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Alison Garland, James Corden, Ruth Sheen, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Sally Hawkins, Helen Coker
MPAA Rating: (for pervasive language and some sexuality)
Running Time: 2:08
Release Date: 10/25/02
Review by Mark Dujsik
The easiest thing to do in any long-term relationship is to take for granted the fact that you love the other person. When a couple or a family gets caught up in the day-to-day routine of life in each otherís company, itís bound to happen at some point. People begin to blindly, deafly, and mutely accept each otherís flaws and shortcomings and eventually become numb to them. This numbness eventually starts to show itself in other areas of the relationship, and eventually, instead of working at maintaining the relationship, the pair is simply going through the motions. The family at the center of All or Nothing is well into this process, and Mike Leighís film works so well because we donít necessarily realize the specifics until the characters do. Once they do, the film completely knocks us flat with its honesty. Thereís an extended scene (the filmís penultimate one) in the familyís apartment with a level of verisimilitude that I doubt Iíll ever forget. Yet even with the strength of this central familyís story, Leigh has included studies of two other families, who at first live their own lives in their own world but are then forgotten in the background. Once the film solidifies its focus, the development of the other characters eventually seems forced and unnecessary.
In a London working-class housing complex, three families try to live out their existence in complacency. Phil (Timothy Spall) is a lackadaisical, uninspired taxi driver who starts working after morning rush hour. His lack of steady income is apparent when heís forced to search under the sofa cushions for change and borrow cash from his family just to pay his radio rental on time. His longtime partner Penny (Lesley Manville) works at a local supermarket and is showing signs of dissatisfaction with her role in her relationship with Phil and the relationship in general. They have two children: Rory (James Corden), an unemployed who gets into fights with the local kids, and Rachel (Alison Garland), who works maintenance at the local hospital. Penny has three girlfriends who live a few apartments down and go to karaoke night together. Maureen (Ruth Sheen) is happy enough, even though she has to put up with her rude daughter Donna (Helen Coker) and her abusive boyfriend. The other friend is Carol (Marion Bailey), a close-to-ruin alcoholic, whose husband Ron (Paul Jesson) works with Phil at the cab company and whose daughter Samantha (Sally Hawkins) is the local sexpot.
Leigh is well-known for his innovative way of screenwriting. Essentially, he comes up with an outline for the story, assembles a cast, and develops the screenplay from improvisational sessions with them. This theatrical process shows through in many elements of the film. The relationship and interaction between the characters feels more natural, believable, and in-depth. One can only imagine the kind of material a group of actors working with such a range of possibilities could come up with. The film greatly benefits from this process, but it also inadvertently harms it. From the very start, each of these characters has something unique to offer, and Leigh is incredibly comfortable allowing them to develop to a point that we genuinely understand their individual plights. We see how these charactersí lives intertwine, and how a mistake made by one could greatly impact the future of another. Leigh and his cast have created a microcosm of the greater world of the working-class. The structure stumbles near the end once the film focuses on Phil, Penny, and their children. At this point, the film abandons the other characters, for the most part, leaving their individual stories unresolved. Up until this point, we donít question the need for the development of these characters, but once the film shows its loyalty, thereís no way around it.
The only real reason to question the comprehensive character development is because the central familyís story and dilemma is so strong. The entire film could have rested on their shoulders. At one point in the film, life for the characters comes to a halt as a potential tragedy begins to unfold, and from this point on, the story mainly concentrates on Philís family. From then on out, everything that has bubbling under the surface of these characters slowly comes to light. The inciting event is a medical emergency, and since the film is set in England, there is, thankfully, no fighting over the bill. Instead, Leigh concentrates on what this means to his two leads. Itís at this point the coupleís problem is so blatantly apparent. They have taken for granted that they love each other; their relationship centers on complacency. The performances from Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville are superb. Spall spends most of the film loafing around depressed and miserable, but in the penultimate scene, we seem him in a new light. Manvilleís performance is particularly noteworthy for the way she seems completely unhappy and ready to leave it all behind until sheís forced to entertain a most frightening prospect: Sheís given her life to someone she hasnít loved in some time.
Leighís improvisational method of filmmaking pays off royally in the final section of All or Nothing. The final scenes are some of the most powerfully honest Iíve seen in some time. Itís really a shame the other characters arenít allowed such revelatory moments, but I wonít complain any further.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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