The desperation — sometimes volatile, more often quiet — of the London working class is evoked in borderline too-familiar fashion in “All or Nothing.” A prototypical Mike Leigh film after the bracingly idiosyncratic period biopic “Topsy-Turvy,” effort sees the vet writer-director on his old turf doing what he’s been doing well for years, as he charts the vicissitudes of neighbors in a South London housing project over the course of a long weekend. The wealth of behavioral detail and observational humor make for some rewarding drama that will resonate with many viewers, although a number of caricatured performances, familiarity of the negative notes being struck and structural oddities resulting in too many stray plot threads leave some nagging dissatisfactions. Assuming a typical degree of critical support, customarily solid specialized results should ensue from territories where filmmaker’s work has built a following.
Starting out as a true ensembler, tale quickly achieves the dimensions of a full-bodied mosaic as the large cast of characters is shuffled into the mix at a housing estate that, if not entirely run-down, is surely heading there. Phil Bassett (Timothy Spall), sporting a perpetual hangdog look that makes him resemble the canine that bears his name, scrapes by as a mini-taxi driver while common-law wife Penny (Lesley Manville), whose pert attractiveness is being done no favors by her difficult life, works long hours as a Safeway cashier. Their twentyish kids, Rachel (Alison Garland) and Rory (James Corden), both dreadfully overweight like their dad, deal with their misfit status in different ways, Rachel by withdrawing into her cleaning job at an old folks’ home, Rory by bullying kids in the yard and rotting away as a sulky, belligerent couch potato at home.
Other locals threaded into the early proceedings are Ron (Paul Jesson), Phil’s cab-driving colleague; latter’s permanently drunken wife Carol (Marion Bailey) and their brassy daughter Samantha (Sally Hawkins) who, with her forward manner and her humorously pink Harvard top looks like she might have her eye on the prize. Maureen (Ruth Sheen) is the only middle-ager in evidence with a bounce in her step, and latter’s low-self-esteem daughter Donna (Helen Coker) is a waitress who puts up with torrential abuse from swaggering b.f. Jason (Daniel Mays).
Leigh’s long-established skill in writing and developing such characters with actors is much in evidence, as is his ability to sketch, through the pinpoint detailing of day-to-day existence, the precariously thin ice that separates his subjects from complete catastrophe. As it is, there is scarcely any relief from the oppressive mediocrity of life; most of the older characters accept their lot submissively, without voicing the obvious and dousing their disappointment with varying degrees of drink, while the younger ones tend to act out physically while similarly refusing to directly confront the dismal big picture.
First dramatic eruption occurs when Donna informs Jason that she’s pregnant. Ranting and raging when in repose, Jason starts careening like a pinball with this news, whereupon this subplot is basically dropped. Similarly, the provocative Samantha keeps toying with a mysterious loner (Ben Crompton) who lurks around the grounds, but nothing comes of this either.
As the supporting cast that has been so neatly established begins falling by the wayside, focus falls squarely on the Bassett family, and especially on the long-suffering Penny. Physically so different from the rest of her family and clearly having once hoped for more from life, Penny stoically contains her constant worries, realizing that she can’t single-handedly overcome the sullen lethargy of the rest of the family, particularly the men, who feel so put upon.
Just as Phil goes privately drifting off into what threatens to become a British counterpart to Laurent Cantet’s “Time Out,” a third act bombshell hits as young Rory shockingly suffers a heart attack after a dispute with some kids in the yard. His hospitalization, the way the other family members are informed and the resultant epiphanies spur some raw emotional revelations between Phil and Penny, although the convulsive confessions have a blatantly theatrical air both in the staging and acting, and the coda’s uplift introduces a feel-good dash of hope that’s not prefigured in any of the preceding miserableness.
Leigh regular Manville registers most strongly and sympathetically here as the beleaguered Penny. Spall, appearing in his sixth Leigh feature, gently explores a man who’s had nearly all the spirit sucked out of him, and Garland and Corden register strongly as the Bassett kids. Among the supporting players, Sheen supplies winning gumption as a woman still making the best of a bad deal, and Hawkins seems ever-ready to take the brash Samantha places the script never goes.
By contrast, Bailey’s sodden Carol is a tottering, unfunny cartoon, Mays’ macho poseur remains one-dimensional, and Kathryn Hunter’s long cameo as an arch French passenger of Phil’s doesn’t warrant the time given over to it.
Ultimately, this technically smooth picture skillfully creates many moments of vibrant, incipiently poetic slice-of-life drama, but comes to feel stuck in a groove of hopelessness that nearly rivals that afflicting its characters.