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All or Nothing (2002)

Main image of All or Nothing (2002)
35mm, colour, 128 mins
DirectorMike Leigh
Production CompanyThin Man Films
ProducersAlain Sarde
 Simon Channing Williams
Written byMike Leigh
CinematographyDick Pope

Cast: Timothy Spall (Phil Bassett); Lesley Manville (Penny Bassett); Alison Garland (Rachel Bassett); James Corden (Rory Bassett); Ruth Sheen (Maureen); Marion Bailey (Carol)

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In a London housing estate over a long weekend, long-term couple Penny and Phil rediscover their love when their son Rory becomes ill and has to be rushed to hospital.

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Critical opinion was divided on Mike Leigh's All or Nothing: some considered it is his most self-assured work to date; others felt Leigh's gritty kitchen-sink realism was becoming jaded and his characters becoming caricatures. But there is no doubt that in this strikingly polemic slice of disaffected, cross-generational working-class life, the narrative is given time to evolve. More importantly, the characters are given the space to develop.

Dick Pope's cinematography imbues the subject matter with a certain scruffy realism and authenticity, favouring cramped interiors. In the montage of cab sequences, sense of space is restricted by the camera's static position. Inside Penny and Phil's flat, shots framed by doors and windows heighten this feeling of bleak claustrophobia.

Leigh's meditation on the impoverished human condition highlights the struggles to survive of a cross-section of middle-aged working-class people: Phil and Penny's financial hardships, Maureen's single-parenting, Carol's retreat into alcoholism, Sid's obsession with Rachel. But the film's strength lies in its portrayal of the loneliness, self-destructiveness and aimlessness of its younger generation: Rory's abuse of his mother, Donna's pregnancy and ill-treatment by her boyfriend, Samantha's refusal to get a job. Omnipresent loner Sid, silently lurking on the estate's periphery, is the most devastating character. The scene in which he pulls back his jacket, proudly revealing to Samantha an 'S' carved into his skin in demonstration of his love for her, encapsulates the frustrated desires and the desperate need for attention in all of Leigh's teenagers.

It is testament to the director's articulate humanism and the talent of his actors that the ending doesn't seem contrived, despite an arguably clich├ęd plot development in which lines of communication between parents are reopened in the wake of a son's crisis. The final scene shows Penny wearing make-up, a cleanly shaven Phil and Rachel sitting around Rory's bed laughing. The camera finally rests on Penny's face, showing relief, but also apprehension. If the light, happy glow of the ending seems slightly glib, it is only because Leigh is now expert at creating characters with futures and, more importantly, uncertain ones.

Shalini Chanda

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Video Clips
Leigh, Mike (1943-)
Spall, Timothy (1957-)
Walker, Lesley