A fat, expressionless young woman slowly mops the floor of a dingy nursing home in the long opening shot of All or Nothing. And the extended scene, suggesting spirit-killing drabness (or maybe silent contemplation, or maybe just the tedium of mopping), pretty well sums up the emotional constrictions of Mike Leigh’s latest working-class miserython. Having digressed for one magical musical moment with his brilliant 1999 Gilbert & Sullivan fantasia, ”Topsy-Turvy,” Leigh is back amid the unexceptional lives of quiet desperation (English-public-housing division) that he has made his dramatic specialty in such kitchen-sink confidentials as ”Secrets & Lies” and ”Life Is Sweet,” demanding that attention must be paid.
But to what? With one exception, every blighter in this particular South London housing project digs into dysfunction like it’s a big, comforting jar of Marmite, to be slathered on crackers and served as a feast of bleakness. Family life for sad-sack taxi driver Phil (Timothy Spall) and his common-law wife, Penny (Lesley Manville), a supermarket cashier, is a daily slog of shuffling, grunting, scrounging for change behind the sofa cushions, and making do with disappointment. This is punctuated by Penny’s shrieks to her obese, angry, jobless, couch-sprawled son, and by the son’s limited-vocabulary response: ”F — – orfff!” (The fat nursing-home orderly is the couple’s sad, stolid daughter.) Neighbors include a couple of sloppy boozers whose sluttishly styled daughter taunts men as a diversion. Only a chipper single mother, Maureen (the marvelous Ruth Sheen), whose own resentful daughter is pregnant by a bullying eejit, knows how to make her own good time.
Misery is personal, but no man — not even a mountainous one — is an island in Leigh’s microcosm. ”All or Nothing” is built, as are all the filmmaker’s projects, on a foundation of improvisational character development cemented by a cast of regulars. And in its best moments, scenes of easy, shared intimacy make these woeful shlubs in their impoverished settings look rich.
A climactic scene of accusation and reconciliation between the central woebegoners, Phil and Penny, is riveting, in good part because Manville (the poignant Mrs. Gilbert in ”Topsy-Turvy”) works in such natural, perfect sync with the unerring Leigh-ite Spall. But even more moving (and less predictable) is the casually beautiful scene in which Penny, Maureen, and the drink-slurred Carol (Marion Bailey) have a girls’ night out at a pub. When Maureen takes the karaoke microphone to sing ”Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” her own eyes shine with a delight that can’t be dampened by dead-end prospects. And as she watches Maureen, even resentful, squawky Penny sees the beauty in her large, goosey friend’s rapturous face.
In that rare moment, the movie relaxes its rictus of pain and actually dares to feel good. Moments like these aren’t just a negotiation between all and nothing — they’re everything that allows us to care about even those characters who only slouch and shriek ”F — – orfff!”