Beautiful Losers

Mike Leigh scores one for the underdogs

Time passes slowly in a Mike Leigh film, and in All or Nothing, it sometimes seems to barely move at all.That's not necessarily a bad thing. It just takes some getting used to. Given a basic understanding of Leigh's house rules — and a healthy reserve of patience — even a film like All or Nothing, which is the director at his most measured and melancholy, can be richly rewarding.

Take the opening sequence, for instance. The credits roll over a static shot of a drab hallway in an old folks home, as a dumpy cleaning woman (who turns out to be much younger than she looks) moves in and out of the frame, listlessly mopping away at the floor. The shot seems to go on forever, and the only other element within it that changes is the appearance and then disappearance of an elderly woman struggling to make her way down the hall. A mournful cello and violin drive the mood home, accompanying the opening sequence and much of the rest of the film.

Leigh isn't grandstanding here. That's not what he's about. The sustained minimalism of the movie's opening shot has nothing to do with Mike Leigh showing us what an artsy sort of filmmaker he is. Everything is a means to an end for Leigh, that rarest of auteurs who will almost always choose function over form. All he's really trying to do is to bring us inside his film, inside the reality of the moment, inside the reality of the characters' world. Sometimes that takes a little time.

The opening sequence at the rest home segues into a series of brief, seemingly disconnected images of people's lives, mostly sad, aimless, lonely and frustrated. This is Leigh's way of introducing us to the characters in his film, a dovetailing mixture of taxi drivers, checkout clerks and unemployed layabouts, all of whom live at the same squalid housing estate in one of London's least desirable neighborhoods.

Leigh understands the nuances of class better than most, and he loves the extremes of English life. The snotty upper classes have been cherished targets in such films as Career Girls and Leigh's masterpiece, Naked, but the director reserves his most penetrating and ultimately affectionate examinations for the dispossessed of the earth. In film after film, Leigh has embraced (some might say wallowed in) the haunts and habits of the lower classes, displaying an unabashedly populist love of individual diversity (and good old-fashioned English eccentricity, in particular), while championing the underdog in all forms.

All or Nothing may be Leigh's ultimate homage to the salt of the earth, but don't for a minute assume that makes it a feel-good experience.

The bottom line may well be that most of the characters here are what are commonly described as "good people," but you'll have to wade through a considerable amount of negativity and sheer nastiness to arrive at that understanding. Phil (Leigh regular Timothy Spall), a lethargic cabbie with a haunted look, is our guide into the film's world, a place where you have to look long and hard to see flickers of light within the grime. It's a bleak, ramshackle place largely inhabited by depressed, lost, clueless or alcoholic adults and kids who are either sexed-up tarts, apathetic blobs or angry monsters. Nobody has money, the parents all work crap jobs, shuffle home to badger their kids about when they're going to get (presumably equally crappy) jobs and are summarily told to piss off and shut up.

Leigh sprinkles the proceedings with moments of levity, but in a way that seems a natural extension of the less-than-perfect existences on display. The bulk of All or Nothing consists of seemingly inconsequential moments, small details that don't necessarily further the plot but reveal the characters in a variety of intriguing ways. Occasionally there is a bit of near-melodrama. One of the characters unexpectedly suffers a heart attack and another reveals her pregnancy to an abusive boyfriend, but the film's emotional range is generally fairly small and subdued, its narrative course slow and steady.

As with his other movies, Leigh's new film gets deep inside the characters' heads, even if that isn't the most pleasant place to be. This is the real saving grace of All or Nothing; the film embraces its world so passionately and wholeheartedly that to call All or Nothing depressing seems to miss the point entirely.

And to call it a "character study" seems almost academic. Leigh's unique working method involves months of intensive, hands-on workshops (group therapy sessions, really) where the director and all the actors jointly invent, investigate and develop each character down to the tiniest of individual nuances. This process grounds Leigh's movies with an extraordinary immediacy and palpable reality that's rarely found in other films.

Even the moments you expect don't usually happen the way you expect them to in All or Nothing. Late in the film, sad-eyed Phil suffers a bit of a meltdown, makes a pilgrimage to the sea and stands at the water's edge staring out at the horizon. Most filmmakers would dredge up a Spielberg moment here, with the camera swooping up behind the character to frame him against the endless ocean upon which he gazes, an instant symbol of a limitless sea of possibilities.

Leigh won't have any of that, and makes us work for our metaphors. The director simply places his camera a few feet down the beach from his actor and shoots the scene from the side, in a no-frills medium shot plainly emphasizing the character's tenuous position at ocean's edge, hemmed in by his environment. The sense we get is unadorned reality as heartbreakingly poignant as a truckload of Spielbergian cine-tricks. In Leigh's version, the place where the water meets the land becomes a sad marker between what is and what can only be imagined.

All or Nothing is the work of a filmmaker very near the top of his game and, in a sense, very near the bottom of the emotional spectrum. You'd be hard-pressed to call Leigh's film an unabashed dirge, though — it's too full of compassion and life for that. Mike Leigh may be a pessimist, but he'd probably be the first to tell you he's the most optimistic pessimist around.

There's even a moment in All or Nothing where he seems to be referencing that old joke about the couple who complain about the restaurant because the food's bad and there's too little of it. Phil, after being beaten down by every single aspect of his dead-end life throughout the course of the movie, decides not to argue with a non-paying fare at the end of the day, and instead simply sighs, "Life's too short."

That's the movie in a nutshell: life sucks and there's too little of it. The cabbie then tells the freeloader to get lost, picks up the walkie-talkie and calmly announces to his dispatcher, "I'm free." The beauty of All or Nothing is we don't know whether the words are simply what they are or one more cruel irony — whether the glass is half empty or half full.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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