For a filmmaker, the penalty for consistent excellence is that audiences may take you for granted. "All or Nothing" is another little masterpiece from Britain's Mike Leigh ("Secrets & Lies," "Naked"), one of the finest and most compassionate filmmakers. Though it was one of the best films at both the recent Cannes and Chicago film festivals, "All or Nothing" has yet to pick up prizes or critical heat.
Some critics suggest it's more of the same for Leigh. That's a superficial call. Leigh makes films in a different style from almost anyone - building them up during long, intense workshops with his cast - and that's why they have an emotional and human fiber, and a sense of life, that goes far beyond the usual movie dramas. "All or Nothing," which chronicles several days in the lives of the Bassett family and their neighbors, shows Leigh and his remarkable cast at their peak.
The Bassetts aren't an attractive lot; they are the sort of family the movies usually ignore, except as comic relief. Overweight and argumentative, the family members lead a hardscrabble existence in a London council flat, and most of their neighbors are barely better off than they. Father Phil (Timothy Spall of "Secrets & Lies" and "Topsy-Turvy") is a cab driver who is usually behind in his bills and so hangdog, shaggy and unkempt that you can barely hear him when he speaks. His wife Penny (Lesley Manville), the only family member without a weight problem, works as a cashier at the local supermarket. Her two children, both in their early 20s, are self-sacrificing Rachel (Alison Garland), an attendant at a nursing home, and layabout Rory (James Corden), a selfish hothead who constantly picks fights with his family and neighbors over nothing.
Those neighbors include Phil's friend and fellow driver Ron (Paul Jesson), who is a liar and bully; Ron's alcoholic wife Carol (Marion Bailey); their loose daughter Samantha (Sally Hawkins); and Penny's friend, the jolly divorcee Maureen (Ruth Sheen), whose daughter Donna (Helen Coker) is pregnant by her abusive boyfriend Jason (Daniel Mays).
Described like that, "All or Nothing" probably sounds like an unsavory, depressing little movie about people most of us would rather not know - or to admit knowing if we did. Yet "All or Nothing" strikes me as a hopeful, even elating film. Movies about the contemporary working classes are often sentimental and condescending. Leigh, by contrast, portrays the urban poor in terms that are both harshly realistic and deeply compassionate. By the end of "All or Nothing," one sees all these people - especially the four Bassetts - in a very different light.
One point Leigh makes here is that even in a household of four today, with three people working full-time jobs, it's hard to get by. So gradually, over the years, Phil has had the life sucked out of him, Penny has been backed into a corner, Rachel has retreated into herself and Rory has become a whiner and a lout. Things change, but not for the reasons you would expect.
The acting in "All or Nothing" is superb. Everyone creates a character we can immediately register and recognize as true - sometimes in only a few words or scenes. Spall daringly plays a man with almost no visible personality or spirit, but that simply magnifies the power of the late scene when he suddenly pours out his anguish to Penny. Sheen's Maureen, the only buoyant soul in the flats, captures the screen with her aggressive cheerfulness; her hearty, full-voiced rendition of Crystal Gayle's "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" at the local bar is one of the film's great moments.
As in most Leigh films, the accents here may give some audiences trouble. That possible quibble aside, "All or Nothing" is a triumph, a film that hews out a world and carries us effortlessly from darkness to light. Leigh has been compared variously to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov and French filmmaker Jean Renoir, and though both comparisons are apt, he's someone who's definitely created a world all his own - though, of course, it's our world too (if only we'd look more clearly around us).
The ultimate theme of "All or Nothing" is profound: Life goes on, and love can survive pain. Human feeling and empathy can trump adversity. Most films these days would reduce those statements to cliches. "All or Nothing," and the Bassett family, make them live and breathe.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
"All or Nothing"
Directed and written by Mike Leigh; photographed by Dick Pope; edited by Lesley Walker; production designed by Eve Stewart; music by Andrew Dickson; produced by Simon Channing Williams. A United Artists release; opens Friday, Nov. 1. Running time: 2:08. MPAA rating: R (for pervasive language and some sexuality).
Phil Bassett - Timothy Spall
Penny Bassett - Lesley Manville
Rachel Bassett - Alison Garland
Rory Bassett - James Corden
Maureen - Ruth Sheen
Ron - Paul Jesson
Carol - Marion Bailey Samantha - Sally Hawkins
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times