Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
A new Mike Leigh movie arrives this week, an Amazon Studios production that gives the director more money than he’s ever had to spend: $18 million, a pittance by anybody else’s standards. Peterloo is an account of the 1819 massacre of a crowd of Manchester protestors by English soldiers. Although it arrived to lukewarm reviews at festivals last fall, the film is getting a little more love during its stateside opening this month. I think it’s terrific, actually one of Leigh’s best. My review is here.
I’ve reviewed almost all of Leigh’s films since he move up from TV work to big-screen titles with 1988’s High Hopes. Here’s that review (it includes a reminiscence about how I didn’t hit it off with him in an interview setting), but I also thought I’d include a piece on one of his least-talked-about films, All or Nothing (2002). I can understand this movie’s low profile; it isn’t a fun one. But the splendid performances by Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville are worth recollecting, at least.
All or Nothing
The people in Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing perpetually greet each other with a nod and an automatic, “You all right?” The reply is invariably “Yeah, I’m all right.” It doesn’t take long for this exchange to take on a tragic tone. Things are emphatically not all right in this world, and the characters are so worn down they can’t even pause to see it.
After a break with the period piece Topsy-Turvy, Leigh is back in the working-class realm he has explored through most of his career, in movies such as High Hopes and Life is Sweet and the Oscar-nominated Secrets & Lies.
The people of All or Nothing inhabit a soul-deadening housing development in London. We browse across a handful of lives, but our main focus is on family of four: Phil (Timothy Spall), a slovenly cabbie, his common-law wife Penny (Lesley Manville), and their obese, depressed children, hospital attendant Rachel (Alison Garland) and do-nothing teenage son Rory (James Gordon). Phil has surrendered so completely that his philosophy consists of a passive acceptance of anything life throws at him. Penny hasn’t got a clue why Rachel is withdrawn and Rory is hostile.
When All or Nothing sticks to this quartet, it is very sad—and in the final half-hour, extraordinarily moving. The walrus-like Spall and the birdlike Manville, both veterans of Leigh’s work, are perfectly matched, and their performances are exquisite. Leigh’s ensemble approach means we also meet other characters, and they don’t come to life as clearly as the main family. A girl who gets pregnant by her brutish boyfriend, another girl whose goal is seduce any available lads in the development…these stories are more familiar and less compelling.
The overall mood creates such a portrait of depression, it’s sometimes stifling. The only person who has a spark of wisdom or life is a single mother (the superb Ruth Sheen) who invites Penny and another woman out for a night of karaoke. And even that goes bad.
Leigh’s approach with actors has always been to allow them to develop their own dialogue and storylines, and that may account for the uneven nature of All or Nothing. But when this movie is considering the tiny shifts within a family dynamic, and the breath of hope that people might be able to change their lives after a long period of deep-freeze, it is very good indeed.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.