Helplessly hoping

Mike Leigh comes back with a down-and-dirty optimism.

Jan 15, 2003 at 12:00 am

Writer-director Mike Leigh’s new film, a leisurely and anecdotal examination of the emotionally chaotic lives of the down-but-not-quite-out, is a return to his old subject matter after the unexpected diversion of 1999’s Topsy Turvy. There he invested the perennially staid genre of the historical biopic with his dark and humorous naturalism, contrasting the sensual and good-natured Arthur Sullivan with the unhappy and remote William Gilbert as they obsessively drilled the laboring musicians and actors of the D’Oyly Carte company in the process of creating The Mikado. It was his most ambitious effort to date and demonstrated how his patiently observational style could be applied to a broader canvas. It was a wonderful film and suggested that his particular approach needn’t be limited to kitchen sink-type dramas.

So All or Nothing could be seen as a step backward, a retreat to the familiar landscape of modern English despair, a reworking of old themes and methods. Which is to say that this is a good Mike Leigh film for people who like Mike Leigh films. If you don’t, you might be put off by its familiar dreariness, or bored by the paucity of dramatic excitement. But if you’re attuned to his simmering stories of long suffering and hard-won moments of happiness you’ll find much here to appreciate.

In Leigh’s films, the people tend to bark and claw at each other, aiming to do maximum damage and then regretting it, only to start over again; they’re like low-rent versions of those Bergman domestic dramas where couples bound by habit and shared insincerity start peeling away the layers, inching toward some point of no return. In Leigh-land, love means always having to say you’re sorry.

Set in South London, All or Nothing focuses on three couples, friends who live in the same council flat with their apparently doomed offspring. The keynote character, the one who most sets the film’s tone, is a mini-cab driver named Phil (Leigh regular and most valuable player Timothy Spall). Phil is passive without being resigned; he speaks in a hesitant near-whisper and has the perpetually worried and distracted look of somebody who’s expecting the worst — or perhaps someone who feels that the worst has already happened, but he can’t quite put his finger on what it was or when it occurred. When one of his passengers tells him he has no money to pay his fare, rather than become angry Phil just sends him on his way muttering, “Life’s too short.” Obviously he doesn’t have the energy to argue nor the desire to become engaged, but the old cliché rings hollow on his lips. This is a guy for whom life is proving to be much too long.

Phil’s common-law wife, Penny (Lesley Manville, memorable as Gilbert’s stifled wife in Topsy Turvy), is a supermarket cashier. The couple live with their two dangerously obese teenage children, the rancorous and incommunicative Rory (James Cordon) and the equally distant but more kind-hearted Rachel (Alison Garland). This is a family in stasis, each member isolated by their inability to express their frustrations, and it will (and does) take a crisis to break the emotional deadlock.

Phil and Penny’s friends are no better off: Single mother Maureen’s daughter has become pregnant by her abusive boyfriend; Phil’s friend and fellow cabbie, Ron, has an alcoholic wife who’s slipping into dementia and a sexy daughter who, out of boredom, unwisely teases a local loner.

That’s a lot of plot and it might seem a little soap operaish, but it doesn’t play that way. Leigh’s approach of doing extensive improvisations with the actors before committing to a final screenplay guarantees a depth of character that goes beyond stereotypes. It also leads to plot twists that grow out of layered personalities, as when Phil picks up a seemingly antagonistic French woman who, during the course of their long cab ride, slowly reveals a sympathetic side.

And while one misses the humor that made earlier Leigh efforts like High Hopes (1988) and Life is Sweet (1991) seem less corrosive while still biting, this is more than just a masochistic wallow in the realm of stunned disillusionment. Rather, it’s a slow-tempo trip to the possibility of emotional renewal and, against all odds, believably optimistic.


Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].