All or Nothing, 128 mins, opening in cinemas nationwide on 17 April 2003
Mike Leigh is a director known for his searing, intense dramas, usually portraying English working-class life.  Of these, the two best known to Australians would be Naked (1993) and Secrets and Lies (1996).  The bitterly funny and disturbing Naked won Leigh a Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival.  Secrets and Lies also won awards for Leigh and his lead actress Brenda Blethyn.  Then there is the atypical Topsy-Turvy (1999), the story of Gilbert and Sullivan, perhaps Leigh’s most popular film to date.
The film is a grim look at the social problems of grinding working-class life.  Leigh’s technique is to work closely with his actors, without a script, to develop characters first, and to let the story emerge from there.   He often works with the same actors – Alison Steadman, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Jim Broadbent, and the late Katrin Cartlidge (not all exactly household names, but wonderful character actors, especially in an ensemble cast).
All or Nothing stars Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville as husband and wife Phil and Penny, who are chronically short of money.  This is their story and the stories of their neighbours in a council estate.  Phil is a taxi driver who has lost the will to work.  Penny works hard but is tired and exasperated.  She is no longer in love with Phil, but is too tired to do anything about it.  Their daughter, Rachel, is a cleaner in a home for elderly people – a dispiriting job for a young person.  Their son, Rory, is unemployed, lazy and aggressive.  He fights with his mother.  Things look hopeless.  But something happens to change their relationships and make Phil and Penny face up to what has happened to them over the years.
Leigh uses this fascinating microcosm to examine important social problems.  For example, many of the characters are gratuitously angry and aggressive.  Phil’s taxi-driver friend, Ron (Paul Jesson) drives recklessly and has accidents.  The taxi passengers are obnoxious.  Young girls are routinely abused by their boyfriends.  Rory is angry about everything.  Some use alcohol to numb their pain.  It’s a grim life.  But it is funny too: Leigh’s scripts always contain just enough humour and wit to leaven the bleakness of his characters’ lives.
And Leigh shows us there’s light at the end of the tunnel.  If there was love to begin with, then the odds are it is still there and it can bring comfort and strength enough to get us through whatever life can throw at us.   Or, as Phil – who is something of a muddled philosopher – tells Penny: “Love is like a dripping tap.  The bucket’s either half-full or half-empty.  You are either alone or together.”  Best take together.
© Michèle M Asprey 2003