Saturday, May 03, 2008

Mike Leigh retrospective - ALL OR NOTHING

ALL OR NOTHING is the first Mike Leigh film that I truly enjoyed from start to finish, and that's an odd statement, because it's a pretty grim movie about the British underclass. Still, for all that, there's a tremendous sense of compassion and understanding that runs through the film, in sharp contrast to Leigh's earlier, more satirical movies.

Thatcherism is dead. Long Live New Labour. We are in London in 2002 and not much has changed for the socially deprived. They're still living on decrepit council housing estates, neutered by lack of opportunity and lack of ambition, living on a diet of fried food, alcohol and cigarettes. Leigh introduces us to a rare nuclear family. Timothy Spall plays Phil - an optimistic but lazy taxi driver, reduced to cadging change of his kids to pay for his minicab radio in a scene almost too painful to watch. He's married to Penny: Lesley Maville in a role usually described as "long-suffering". They have two obese children - a loving daughter Rachel (Alison Garland) and a brutish, selfish son called Rory (James Corden. Their journey is of self-realisation. Phil has to realise he is unhappy before he can get the will to change. Penny has to discover the courage to speak out about her frustration. Rory has to face the consequences of his sloth. Rachel, one feels, still has her epiphany ahead of her. In some ways, she is the most intriguing character - so passive, and yet she evidently has a great fondness for her dad, and is deeply affected by her parents' rowing.

The secondary characters are a rogues gallery of teenage pregnancy, abusive boyfriends, slappers and stalkers, except that Leigh's characterisations are much more nuanced than my abusive short-hand descriptions. Together they give a rich sense of the untapped potential, frustrated hopes and yes - the community spirit that just about still exists on the estates. And it's this fine quality, combined with the flashes of gallows humour, that keep ALL OR NOTHING from being a dirge - and stops the film from feeling over-long or unrelentingly grim.

ALL OR NOTHING played Cannes and Toronto 2002 and opened that year. It is available on DVD.

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