All or Nothing

(Mike Leigh, UK, 2002)


A sombre string quartet churns away on the soundtrack. Flat, visually uninteresting images. Actors, permanently glum, who are forced to mouth tawdry soliloquies that include lines like: "Two lagers … fish and chips … Satdee night."

Welcome, one more time, to the miserable world of British writer-director Mike Leigh (Life is Sweet, 1991).

It would be hard to imagine a film more loathsome than All or Nothing. Pompously, Leigh still projects himself, through his work, as the poet of working class despair. As usual, all the cards of the drama are fixed from the beginning: Phil (Timothy Spall) is a morose cab driver; his daughter, Rachel (Alison Garland), works in a home for the elderly; his son, Rory (James Corden), is obese and unemployed; and his wife, Penny (Lesley Manville), is full of resentment at life’s daily misfortunes.

There are other similarly sad characters in this suburban mosaic, but only one of them ever cracks a smile or sings a song. Generally, the emotional tenor of Leigh’s cinema has only two settings: either people are sullen and repressed, or twisted and aggressive. He looks down on his characters in order to then pass a supposedly benevolent judgement upon them.

Leigh’s films once seemed to suggest an angry, political viewpoint. But stack All or Nothing up against, for example, Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen (2002), and the empty, bankrupt character of Leigh’s world-view becomes instantly, horribly transparent.

There is not a skerrick of social analysis here, not of class, state, family, religion, gender or work. The unhappiness in All or Nothing comes down to bad, personal behaviour – and wouldn’t you know it, a woman is to blame. (Leigh’s oeuvre is no stranger to misogyny.) As in the dreadful Secrets & Lies (1996) – the downward turning-point for this auteur – Leigh seems to believe that a spot of catharsis will cure or change everything.

This movie is the nadir of Leigh’s frequently overrated career. Given its preachy, superior tone, it is easy to hear the director’s message to his characters: love one another, as I have not loved you.

MORE Leigh: Career Girls, Naked, Happy-Go-Lucky, Peterloo

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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