Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:00 pm 
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Practice makes perfect

Mike Leigh is known for a special way of working. His films focus on poor and down and out English people. His actors live with their roles for months before shooting even begins, becoming so deeply involved that they can easily improvise scenes. It's said that this way of working pays off, that Leigh has become one of his country's finest cinematic craftsmen.

This can be seen exceptionally well illustrated by "All or Nothing," the new Mike Leigh about a group of inhabitants of a Southeast London housing development with directionless lives and diminishing expectations. Here is a movie whose craftsmanship slowly overwhelms you.

It's also said that the people and scenes represented in Leigh's films don't seem real - that one is always aware that they're inventions, but one accepts their terms. That may be true. The "vérité" devices Leigh employs may seem transparent. But the emotions he evokes are undeniably valid and human.

"All or Nothing" is a panoramic view of its milieu that moves back and forth among eleven different characters, without much focus at first on any one of them. There is Phil, a cabbie, and Penny, a Safeway checkout person, and their fat grown children, Rachel, who works at a nursing home, and Rory, a surly do-nothing. And there is Carol, an alcoholic married to Ron, a lazy cab driver. There are the young daughters Donna and Samantha, and a couple of rude boys who hang around in the courtyard, Jason and Craig, and the one upbeat person, a single mom named Maureen.

But the drooping visage of Leigh regular Timothy Spall - used in the adverts - is the image that will stay in most people's minds from the movie; and this is good, because the final scene between Spall's character and his wife (Lesley Manville) are the emotional core of "All or Nothing." This extraordinarily moving scene - a reconciliation after a family health crisis - has a rare depth and specificity. Maybe the fact that Leigh's films are inventions is evident because they come so very close to being real. Earlier, however, there are many moments when you may find everything so depressing you'll want to walk out. The young people's hopes seem illusory; the older people are in debt and can't cope. But if you see "All or Nothing" through to the end and still find it depressing, you must be ignoring the artistry of it, and the classically positive redemption Leigh has created in the film's final sequences.

Leigh's editing is wonderful. He works with hundreds of hours of film and boils them down to a coherent structure that rises and falls with classical perfection and he knows precisely where to end, at the moment when these people's sad little lives have become transfixed and redeemed by the power of love. In its own very quiet way, "All or Nothing" is a devastating and wonderful film.

Leigh's mindset is English. This is an extreme version of "muddling through." It's interesting to compare "All or Nothing" with an Italian neo-realist film, which in some ways it resembles - but aren't the Italian characters more universalized and romanticized? Interesting also to know that an Italian writer has called this film a "comedy." In Italian terms, these Dickensian creations are infinitely grotesque. In American terms, they're preposterous sad sacks. But in Leigh's terms, they're to be taken straight, sympathetically, without condescension or pity. But to call this a comedy is justifiable, because the characters' follies and crises are seen with wry detachment, and the drama that develops finally moves toward reunion and reconciliation. The paradox is that something explicitly so naturalistic is such a triumph of art. Were it not for Leigh's skill in assembling his materials "All of Nothing" would be the glum collection of dreary incidents that some will see in it.

November 12, 2002

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