ALL OR NOTHING
UK, 2002, 128 minutes, Colour.
Timothy Spaull, Lesley Manville, Alison Garland, James Corden, Ruth Sheen, Marian Bailey, Paul Jesson, Kathryn Hunter, Sally Hawkins, Helen Coca, Daniel Mays, Ben Crompton, Robert Wilfort, Garry Mc Donald, Diveen Henry.
Directed by Mike Leigh.
Most critics are in admiration of Mike Leigh's films, from those short, hard-hitting dramas for the television audience, like Meantime, to the films of the late 1980s and the 1990s, High Hopes, Life is Sweet, Naked (Best director at Cannes, 1993), Secrets and Lies (Palme D' Or, Cannes, 1996), Career Girls and his portrait of Gilbert and Sullivan, Topsy Turvy. Most audiences who see the films - unfortunately, they are still considered 'art-house' fare - admire them deeply.
There is one element of criticism, however, that sometimes creeps in. And it did so for his 2002 film, All or Nothing. Is Mike Leigh being patronising to his characters? They are working-class East Londoners, most of them struggling to keep ahead in their daily lives. Is the director taking a stance of superiority over his creations? It's a point of criticism that any dramatist, screenwriter or director has to be ready for if they try to portray - especially warts and all - the working class. Ken Loach usually gets away with it because he is obviously so committed to social and socialist justice. Leigh is not so overtly critical of the politics of justice. But that seems to be where both his head and his heart are.
However, All or Nothing is the title of Mike Leigh's moving picture of families on an East London estate day by day. We, the audience, are immersed in a culture to which many 'art-house' audiences will be tempted to feel superior. It is Leigh's genius and that of his cast who work for months improvising their characters so that they will be real and credible that the film is both real and credible. Leigh then takes the best of the improvisation and writes a tight script which the cast then follow meticulously during filming and which we see up there on the screen.
The film opens with Rachel, a domestic worker in a hospital, mopping the floors, slowly, carefully. She then attends to the patients, checking their pillows. We, the audience, know where we are: in the mundane ordinariness of our lives.
If we take Timothy Spall's character, Rachel's father, Phil, a London taxi driver, we spend quite a deal of time in the taxi with him, mainly listening to the range of customers he picks up. Like him, we glance in the rear vision mirror to check them out, what they look like, how they are dressed, what they sound like, whether they are sympathetic or aggravating. When Phil goes home, it is the same routine every night, a critical comment to his obese son, Rory, a kiss for his common law wife, Penny, and then the evening meal where the family struggle to make conversation or move beyond the tried and true questions about how the day was. Rory can't wait to get away from the table.
Phil withdraws into a semi-passive state, especially in the bedroom with Penny. He can't get himself out of bed early in the morning. He laments his lack of skills. When he tells her that he did not accept a fare from a passenger he judged did not need to pay, Penny berates him. He is capable of interactions as can be seen in a long (perhaps too long) scene where he drives an impatient and garrulous Frenchwoman who deals in antiques. But, it all gets him down and he takes time off to drive to the coast and simply stand on the beach watching the water. He is moved to reflect on life, death and being alone. Because he is out of phone contact, he misses Rory's collapse and arrives late at the hospital to be with his son.
Penny works at the check-out at Safeways. She is a little more outgoing through her neighbour and fellow-worker, Maureen. While Penny keeps the family going, she is becoming more exasperated with Phil. But it is through Maureen that Leigh shows his admiration for his characters. She is the mother earth character, insofar as there can be one upstairs in a block of flats in an East London housing estate. She has a great sense of humour, even in dealing with her want-to-be-married daughter whose boyfriend is the bullying, drinking, sexual macho type. Maureen takes Penny for an outing to the pub and shows she is no mean singer. She can be serious as well. It is she who really takes practical charge when Rory collapses. In this way, Penny and Maureen complement one another as the supports of their families.
Leigh's character gallery is quite extensive. Rachel, like her mother, is a carer. Rory is suffering from poor self-image and unemployed idleness and anger. There are other neighbours and cab drivers, like Ron and his family, and the brother and sister, Neville and Dinah, who run the cab company. There is Jason the misfit who keeps vigil watching Maureen's daughter and develops into a stalker. Leigh's invitation is for the audience to come into this world, identify with the characters and empathise with them.
1. Mike Leigh's films and their acclaim, his reputation - especially for showing the ordinary side of British life?
2. His method of production: intense improvised rehearsals for some months, a tight script based on these rehearsals, following the script tightly? The repercussions for the film itself, its dialogue, the performances of the cast?
3. The East London settings, the world of the taxi driver, the world of the supermarket checkout, the cafes, the estates and the homes, hospitals? The contrast with the scene at the coast?
4. The role of music and silence? The songs, especially "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue"? The reference to secrets and lies?
5. The title and its application to the Bassett family? Generally having nothing? What would be all for them?
6. The contribution of the cast, living their roles, eliciting audience empathy and understanding?
7. An articulate world, the nature of the conversations and subjects, the limited conversations, the limited perspectives and understanding? Focused on the present, the ordinary and the mundane? Phil and his attempts to broaden his horizons? The characters often saying "dunno"? Their continual bickering, anger, swearing, having goes at each other?
8. The moments of joy, especially Rachel at work? Scenes at home, Maureen and Donna together? The club and the singing, especially Maureen? Most others leading lives of quiet desperation?
9. Timothy Spaull's presence as Phil, the continued focus on his face, impassive yet deep? So often driving, looking in the mirror and observing his passengers, the range of passengers, the brief comments, behaviour, attitudes towards life, attitudes towards him? His interacting with them? His passive life, staying in bed in the morning, not having any skills? Letting people off, yet charging needy people to save their dignity? His conversations, his comments about the meaning of life, death, loneliness? The long conversation with the French woman in the taxi, revealing something of himself, helping her with the antique into the hotel? His being capable of more? Yet life getting him down, switching off the radio and the phone, going to the coast, standing at the sea? Reflecting on its meaning, the possibility of opting out? Going back to his family?
10. Neville and Dinah and their running the company, phone calls, demands? Interaction between themselves? Brother and sister? Ron and his driving, the crash, going to the pub? Drinks and chatting with Phil? Phil's good friend? Phil going home, searching for the money on the sofa, borrowing the money from the rest of the family? The meals, the conversation, Rory and his bad behaviour? Penny and his relationship with her, not married, common-law wife? Her interactions with him, feeling that she had treated him badly? His love for Rachel and proud of her? Rory and his laziness, behaviour? Phil and his return to the hospital, getting lost? Promising to change his life and Penny not believing him, promising them all a holiday at Disneyworld?
11. Penny and her work at Safeways, introverted, living in the present, caring? The decider in the family? Going home and cooking, her upset at Rory's anger and his swearing? Yet supporting him? Limited conversation? Her friendship with Maureen, discussions, going to the club, Carol drinking and their having to support her? Waiting up for Rory, reprimanding Phil? The accident, the news at the supermarket, her upset, getting the taxi, not believing the doctor and his diagnosis? Her phoning Phil, anger with him? Rory's illness being the be-all and end-all of everything?
12. Rachel and the opening with her mopping the floor, at the old people's home? Her being silent at the table, a reader, lending money to her father? Seeing her at work, cleaning? Having a Coke at the café, talking with Donna and Sam? Relationship with Rory? Her discussions with Sid - and his advances? Going to the hospital, being there, dependable, her father being proud of her? Yet her upset when she heard her mother and father bickering, sitting on the steps listening?
13. Rory and his size, playing basketball, bashing Craig? His mother reprimanding him, surliness at the meal, watching TV, lying on the sofa, swearing and angry? Lazy, not looking for work? His heart attack, going to the hospital? Calming down, facing the reality, eating the fish dinner? His love for his parents? Coming out of the crisis? His future?
14. Maureen and her work at Safeways, motherly and caring, doing the ironing, joking and quips at Donna? Delivering the ironing and knowing the neighbours? Her dislike of Jason? Donna going out, going to the club, singing, helping Carol? Donna's pregnancy, the story of her own and her absent husband? The bonds between mother and daughter, offering to go to the doctor with her? Rory's heart attack, her care, going to the hospital? The dependable neighbour?
15. Donna and her age, preoccupation with sex, at work in the café, her love for Jason, doing herself up, telling her mother to shut up all the time? Work at the café, talking with Rachel and Sam? Going out with Jason, not letting Sam go? His attitudes, the bashing, the sex, her resisting? Telling him about the pregnancy? The break-up? Jason and his background, relationship with Donna, the sex, the brutality, offhanded? Bashing her? Wanting to be with the boys, taunting her with his other sexual exploits? Maureen and her clashes with Jason?
16. Ron and the crash, the repairs, having a drink with Phil, going home to drink with Carol, his daughter, takeaway food? Carol and her drinking at home, the club, collapsing drunk? Phil and getting Penny in the taxi to take her to hospital, the second crash? Going home and drinking? Sam and her attitudes towards sex, posturing, Craig continually watching and stalking her? Giving him the come-on? Craig and his having no life but playing basketball, fighting Rory, watching Sam, carving the S on his chest? Sam kissing him but telling him to go? Sam and her response to the heart attack, reprimanding her mother?
17. The taxi service, the clients, the continued work? Phil and this future for him? Neville and Dinah?
18. The doctor, his treating Rory, help, explanations to Penny? The support of the staff?
19. Sid, work at the old people's home, his age, talking about the heat, living in his memories?
20. A glimpse of people living ordinary lives? The transition with the confrontation between Phil and Penny? His pouring out his hear to her, feeling worthless, her treatment of him? Penny going to Rachel and Rachel agreeing? Penny's looking at herself, desperation? Finally reaching out, their embrace, her kissing his hand?
21. The possibility of a new future, Phil combing his hair, Penny putting on make-up, wearing the crucifix? Going to the hospital, an atmosphere of joy - and hope?