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The Films of Mike Leigh

. "All Or Nothing"

If filmmaker Mike Leigh has a particular taste for the misery of life among Britain's working poor, you could say he's done it again. He did it with stunning singularity in "Secrets & Lies", a 1996 Palme d'Or winner. But this one comes after the vividly ebullient "Topysy-Turvy", going some'at topsy turvy with his typical strain of film subjects. Whether it's taste or sensitivity to the plight of his fellow men, he puts the life of the poor and the dysfunctional under his prism of attention with emotional effectiveness.

We are concentrating on the two families in particular who are attempting to scratch out a living and barely paying rent at their London housing complex, a beehive of productive inactivity. As though to put the lie to that pattern, we see Phil Bassett, a cabbie, (a Mile Leigh regular, Timothy Spall) industriously toting his fares about the city. But all is not what it seems when we learn that he sleeps in and goes to work at a comfortable hour, putting in only a partial day.

He earns flack from his much more industrious wife Penny (Lesley Manville) who's work ethos and habits are much more in the mainstream as she fills her days behind the cash register at a local supermarket. Besides putting up with a lay-about, ambitionless husband who works part-time, she is bombarded by insults from her real lay-about, overweight son, Rory (James Corden) who's every word is a put down and an insult. This miserable creation is a being from hell but, oddly, he'll turn out to be the crux on which this drama is to turn.

There's also the seemingly comatose sister who holds down a nurse-assistant job despite an apparent absence of any personality, a best friend and fellow cabbie who is about as accident prone as any cabbie could survive being; another family who is even more dysfunctional with a hot little firecracker of a daughter who is striving to make sense of an unfair world of desperately inadequate role models, such as her mother, by using her body to get any love at all, however meaningless.

If the picture that evolves is a depiction of the realities of life, London pharmacists must do a thriving business in razor blades with which to slash wrists. But, that's not what Leigh is taking us to. Instead, in a fit of utter despondency he comes home one day locked into the decision to leave. In a confrontation scene that must have been inspired by the similar one in "The Bedroom", it turns out to be the defining moment that will see this family through the disappointments and into a restoration of mutual respect. Add to that the son's heart attack, and you have a sorting out of the disrythmias that Leigh is trying to blend into a statement of some truth about some people's empty reality.

It's mostly dispiriting stuff, but with an ending that doesn't allow you to leave the theatre with that pharmacist in mind. In his last act denouement, Leigh salvages the apparent hopelessness of a family's future and the potential for boxoffice attention. The sociologists among us will love this, as will the festival crowd.

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                                      ~~  The Filmiliar Cineaste  


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Lesley Manville and Timothy Spall

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