All or Nothing (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
During the climax of Mike Leigh’s emotionally charged picture, a character is able to voice out what defines their lives: getting up early and going to work every day just to get by. It is a simple truth but one that makes a real impact once delivered because just about every scene that leads up to that point is carefully tuned as to blind us from the blowback.
“All or Nothing” focuses on three families living in London and yet it is about every working class family from all corners of the globe. The first family is led by a matriarch, Penny (Lesley Manville), who works as a cashier at Safeway. Her son (James Corden) does not respect her. Her husband (Timothy Spall), a taxi driver, makes very little money. Only her daughter (Alison Garland) is just as hardworking as she is. And as unhappy as she is.
The second and third families provide structural support for the first. Penny is friends with the two mothers, Maureen (Ruth Sheen) and Carol (Marion Bailey), the former dealing with an out of control daughter and the former being an alcoholic. We watch the two women dealing—or not dealing—with the problems presented to them. Neither situation offers comfortable solutions but there is hope when one squints hard enough and is optimistic enough to see through the dark times. Although Bailey’s character is predictable, Sheen plays her character with complexity and positivity. When Maureen sings a beautiful song on stage, it feels like she is revealing her soul.
The subjects that are tackled in the picture are depressing but it is not a depressing film. It is invigorating because the writer-director is very efficient in showing us how it is like to live in an area or neighborhood where residents do not have a lot of money or means. It is not about how love is enough to conquer all—as more mainstream, feel-good movies tend to show. It is about how love may not be a strong enough trigger to propel a unit beyond survival level.
Exhaustion is one of the themes. Whether it be the physical, emotional, or psychological variety—often a combination of two or all—the movie has a way of making us feel for the characters even if we may not agree with the way they choose to live their lives. We can identify with them. For me, some of the scenes between Penny and her husband reminded me of when my mom and dad used to fight when I was kid—back when we did not have a lot of money. I admired that the film is so honest about the importance of money not so that it can be spent but as a source of security.
Notice that the conversations during the first twenty minutes take place as if to simply pass the time. They feel pointless, shallow, and meandering. The point is to show the disconnect among neighbors and family members. There is no laughter in the community and in the homes. There are disagreements, fights, and silent disdain. Notice how the children talk to their parents, how easily they tell their own mothers to “Fuck off!” While it is difficult not to get a reaction, it is equally maddening that the mothers let their children—who live under their roof—get away with such disrespect.
“All or Nothing” is not meant to make anyone feel good, but watching it is a good experience because it reminds its audience that family is hard to come by. Family is an invaluable support system and when we have so many problems, so many uncertainties, and so many stresses, it is too easy to take our families for granted.