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Touching Drama: Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville struggle through hard times in 'All or Nothing.'

Life Is Sour

'All or Nothing' is one of Mike Leigh's most downbeat films

By Richard von Busack

THE OPENING SHOT of All or Nothing challenges viewers straight away. We see a stocky girl mopping the hallway of some drab institution as an old lady hobbles close, closer, to the camera. What's changed in director Mike Leigh's films from his earlier works--some of the best-crafted films of the last 20 years--is his level of optimism, which is ever waning. The muted happiness seen in High Hopes and Life Is Sweet and the articulate rage of Naked have been checkmated. If the economy's gotten better in England--it has, for some--the plight of the lower classes has worsened. As in America, there are jobs around, but they don't pay well. And everyone in All or Nothing is stuck in some kind of service-industry job: driving a cab, ironing, cashiering at a Safeway, ironing clothes for people offscreen.

The spice of the film--the immensely lovable Ruth Sheen, who played the woman yearning for a child in High Hopes--is rationed in small amounts. Even the usually amiable Timothy Spall is frozen in despair. As a taxi driver, he ferries people around London with all the cheer of Charon hauling a fresh load of the dead across the Styx.

All or Nothing follows three families in a battered council estate, or housing project. The rawness of a London spring is yielding to summer humidity. Spall, as Phil, drives an unprofitable gypsy cab. His live-in, Penny (Lesley Manville), works at the supermarket. Their two children have no plans for the future. Daughter Rachel (Alison Garland) is the girl we see in the credits, swabbing out an old folks home. Her raging brother, Rory (James Corden), is morbidly obese and sore as a boil. Their next-door neighbors suffer in similarly bad straits. A hard-drinking fellow cabdriver (Paul Jesson) has a maudlin, severely alcoholic wife (Marion Bailey, who overdoes it seriously); their daughter, Samantha (Sally Hawkins), is on the prowl for any boy she can get. The other neighbor, the single mom Maureen (Ruth Sheen), has a daughter facing boy trouble of her own.

Spall is heartbreaking when he makes a run for it, in circumstances that recall the walled-in Englishman's break for freedom in George Orwell's novel Coming Up for Air. In a story where the unhappiness wells up on all sides, you love Maureen for being a woman who hasn't given up. When she sings "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" at some pub's karaoke night, All or Nothing touches on the tenderness that has leavened Leigh's pictures in the past. But it's no surprise when the song is interrupted. Leigh's once sour-sweet outlook on city life--a life you could recognize in your own city, and almost never in the movies--is growing more acrid. In All or Nothing, the dim twilight of hope seems dimmer than ever. That's why Leigh can be forgiven for having really laid it all on too thick this time. Fans of this valuable and great-hearted director will go see All or Nothing; the rest might want to find another introduction to his work.

All or Nothing (R; 128 min.), directed and written by Mike Leigh, photographed by Dick Pope and starring Timothy Spall, Alison Garland and Ruth Sheen, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the November 7-13, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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