Not for nothing

All or Nothing unearths hope in English doldrums

The casting call for Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing must have some distinctive requirements. The drama set in England’s working class clearly sought actors who could be described as looking “disappointed,” “bedraggled,” “suicidal” and “unhealthy,” with impenetrable accents being a plus.

All or Nothing depicts the quiet — and not so quiet — desperation in the lives of a handful of neighbors in an impoverished housing project. Prospects are grim and bright spots few, with the young people unerringly making the same mistakes as their parents. Yet Leigh ultimately has mercy on his characters, making All or Nothing at once bleak and hopeful.

The film begins with a shot of an elderly lady laboring down a nursing home corridor, as overweight Rachel Bassett (Alison Garland) mops up, and a cello mourns on the soundtrack. The film scarcely brightens following that grim tableau as we meet Rachel’s unmarried parents: Penny (Lesley Manville), a grocery store cashier, and Phil (Timothy Spall), a taxi driver. They also have a hulking son named Rory (James Corden), who does little but eat, watch telly and hurl abuse at anyone who suggests he do otherwise.

The first half of the film chronicles the Bassetts’ depressing daily routines but keeps another eye on a pair of neighbor girls. Donna (Helen Coker) has gotten pregnant by her cruel, thuggish boyfriend, whom Samantha (Sally Hawkins) wants for herself. The impulsive teens prove no more capable of enjoying themselves than the film’s grown-ups, with Coker’s face seemingly stuck in an expression of self-pitying nausea.

Phil’s stock response to any stimulus is a fatalistic shrug. One of his taxi fares tells him he’s a lucky man, and he only answers, “We’re all gonna die, then.” But Spall demonstrates that Phil’s belief in fate merely gives him an excuse to not aspire to anything better. One of Leigh’s regulars, Spall comes across as England’s equivalent to Philip Seymour Hoffman, a heavyset bloke with remarkable versatility and depth of feeling.

For a while All or Nothing shuttles between the characters without much apparent purpose, but that’s not unusual for Mike Leigh’s modus operandi. Leigh’s scripts derive from extensive workshops with his casts: When he concocted the method at the BBC in the 1970s, his films had the credit “Devised by Mike Leigh.” His results almost invariably yield loose plots but fully drawn characters with deeply felt performances that show no trace of artifice.

A health crisis from out of the blue quickens the film’s pace and throws the roles and their relationship into sharp focus. The emergency provides a kind of wake-up call for Penny and Phil, leading to a wrenching confrontation in which they air the resentment and self-hatred that have amassed for years. When the Bassetts’ domestic conflicts finally bubble over, Samantha and Donna disappear almost completely, as if their recklessness and rage were merely the film’s opening act.

As the film wraps up, the last scenes shift our attention to Rachel, but in the subtlest way possible. She rebuffs a pathetic attempt at courtship from an aged co-worker at the nursing home, yet she may be All or Nothing’s loneliest character. Though Garland conveys the role’s sadness, Leigh never gives her a big speech or moment in the spotlight, implying that she’ll be an overlooked “supporting character” for the rest of her life.

Pain and despair can be found around nearly every corner in All or Nothing, but the filmmaker shows a cautious optimism, suggesting that life can get better, if only in baby steps. It may be that Mike Leigh ultimately gets attached to his people, and lets them off easy.