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All or Nothing (Mike Leigh) 2002


    Returning back to modern day England after a jolly stint in the past with Topsy Turvy, Mike Leigh slides back into comfortable territory with his new film All or Nothing without sacrificing much of the introspection or emotional wallop that has defined his previous efforts. If this slightly slight movie doesn’t quite pack the punch of Leigh’s Secrets & Lies or Life is Sweet it’s clearly leaps and bounds better than something like Career Girls, which qualified as a miss for him. In returning now to look at the woebegone working classes of Britain, he seems to be implicitly arguing that even in a country well out of the Thatcher regime, little has fundamentally changed for the masses. Centering on three families who have neighboring homes in an apartment complex, the film shows that the ennui of the working person (Leigh makes it very clear that to say “working man” would be grossly inaccurate) is widespread and wearying. The first hour of All or Nothing is a bit difficult to sit through because it places an evocation of the characters’ outwardly mundane lives before any plot considerations. These generally dysfunctional characters range from heartbreakingly meek to frustratingly lazy, but before judging any of them, Leigh insists that the film’s audience must understand the demoralizing and physically taxing toll of work on these characters.


    Once All or Nothing’s context is established and the plot kicks in, courtesy of a health crisis that tests the families’ ability to pull together, the pace kicks up considerably. Though the socio-economic baggage built up in the first hour of the film is still somewhat helpful here, it becomes a bit irrelevant as the dramas that unfold become more universally accessible. Surely many of the insecurities that arise are closely tied into the self-loathing that Leigh suggests comes about after spending years in an unfulfilling job, but it’s still difficult to justify quite as much observation of character as Leigh sees fit to include in the first hour. Nothing included in the first half seems wrongheaded, and the cumulative impact is undeniable, but the method of delivery is far from graceful, especially when contrasted with the tighter second half. Isolated scenes, such as the one where Timothy Spall’s cabbie drives out to a picaresque seashore (and seems profoundly out of place) or the segments that show him conversing with a particularily irascible passenger (Kathryn Hunter), are as good as anything Leigh’s done. He clearly hasn’t lost his observational gifts, and it almost goes without saying when describing a Mike Leigh film that the cast is uniformly stellar. Even as All or Nothing doesn’t fail, it pales in comparison with the best of Leigh’s work, but all the same it’s well worth seeing.


* * * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman