All Or Nothing

All Or Nothing (2002)

All Or Nothing first published by Little White Lies, as entry 141 in my Cinema Psychotronicum column (yeah, I am aware how utterly incongruous this particular film is for the column’s remit)

Written and directed by Mike Leigh, All Or Nothing is an ensemble film about three households living on the same London council estate, but it begins and ends with the focus on Rachel Bassett (Alison Garland), a stoical yet sensitive young woman who works as a cleaner at a care home for the elderly, who reads in her spare time, and who expresses her immense love very quietly. This last quality she shares with her father Phil (Timothy Spall), a softly spoken, sometimes lost-for-words minicab driver. With his put-upon, hangdog demeanour, Phil tenderly observes his passengers – who come from all walks of life – and draws philosophical conclusions about the vagaries of existence (“the fickle finger of fate”, as he puts it). Phil’s de facto wife Penny (Lesley Manville) has drifted from him emotionally, and their obese son Rory (James Corden) has inherited his father’s laziness while developing his own obnoxious pugnacity. 

Phil is as close to a protagonist as All Or Nothing gets, and it is one of his ruminations on the nature of love which lends the film its title. Love is indeed a key theme here, as the film dramatises love of all kinds: the love between husband and wife, between parent and child, between friends and between siblings; the appetitive, horny, power-flexing love of a teenager (Sally Hawkins); the creepy, obsessive love of a stalker (Ben Crompton) or of a harasser (Sam Kelly); the abusive, opportunistic love of a ‘loaded’ young man (Daniel Mays) towards his girlfriend (Helen Coker); the fumbling, desperately needy love of an alcoholic (Marion Bailey); and the more delicately sustained habitual love of a long-term couple. “If you’re not together, you’re alone”, comments Phil to one of his customers, “We’re all born alone, you die alone – nothing you can do about it”. Indeed a deep loneliness runs through the Bassetts and their neighbouring families, only amplified by a fear of mortality. 

Leigh’s typical filmmaking methodology – which involves workshopping ideas with his cast through intensive, partly improvised rehearsals, before converting the results into a tightly written screenplay – here pays dividends, as everyone on screen is graced with a real roundedness. Supermarket worker and single mother Maureen (played by Leigh regular Ruth Sheen), the kind of figure normally overlooked in cinema, here radiates generosity and kindness, and even Phil’s minicab manager Neville (Gary McDonald) and his call operator Dinah (Diveen Henry), essentially side characters, are granted a delightful comic moment. Meanwhile on the other side of the class divide, the French art dealer Cécile (Kathryn Hunter) whom Phil picks up as a fare on her way to the opera, is not so much demonised as shown to belong to an alien species, a mere passenger in the backseat of Phil’s life – and yet, on their brief journey together, these two will still form a brief connection.  

Offsetting (very) occasional high hopes with plenty of bleak moments, the primary mode of All Or Nothing is determinedly miserabilist, with Andrew Dickson’s plaintive string-and-woodwind score rather overselling the pathos. This introduces a slightly patronising tone to the proceedings, as though we are being asked to sympathise rather than empathise with these characters’ troubles – but Leigh cuts between and through the potential soapiness of these different family dramas to show a broader mosaic of the human condition, defined by birth, death, and all – or nothing – that happens in between. 

strap: In Mike Leigh’s ensemble drama, a deep loneliness runs through neighbours on a housing estate, only amplified by a fear of mortality. 

Anton Bitel