Cinematic realism can emerge from any number of wildly different approaches, and Mike Leigh’s realism is a particular sort.
It’s understandable that a small film like All or Nothing would get overlooked, falling between two masterpieces (Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake) in the filmography of director Mike Leigh. This 2002 outing from Britain’s best living filmmaker would be a career highlight for almost anyone else; it only qualifies as a disappointment by comparison to a career full of masterpieces.
The film observes several working-class characters living in a shabby apartment complex in London—one that’s framed, early on, to echo a shot of a cemetery in a previous scene. Indeed, much about these characters’ lives seems overtly morbid: Rachel (Alison Garland) is the daughter of Phil (Timothy Spall) and Penny (Leslie Manville) and works in a senior care center; her father’s taxicab gradually begins to seem like a metaphorical coffin. This is all underlined throughout by Andrew Dixon’s grim string music. Towards the end of the film, Alison’s hilariously combative layabout brother Rory (James Corden, unrecognizable under layers of cetaceous blubber) suffers a heart attack, disrupting his family’s humdrum lives.
Leigh’s work process is highly idiosyncratic. Unlike other directors who allow their actors to improvise, Leigh still ends up scripting everything that ends up on screen. His screenplays are based on material generated by the actors during lengthy rehearsal periods, which allows the performers to find their characters gradually, and in collaboration with the filmmaker. In most other cases—as in the films of Joe Swanberg—we see the improvisation actually happening in front of the camera; but this frequently results in poorly paced, awkwardly constructed cinema that ironically draws more attention to its artifice rather than achieving realism. Leigh is sometimes called a Kitchen Sink Realist, a term associated with Ken Loach and other mid-century British playwrights and filmmakers, and he earns this distinction through a characters-first approach. He trusts the emotional truth that his actors, many of whom he works with repeatedly, can bring to a project. Leigh is not unlike the novelist Tobias Wolff, whose straightforward prose never draws attention to itself, but is secretly labored over in order to achieve its beautiful simplicity.
Cinematic realism can emerge from any number of wildly different approaches, and Mike Leigh’s realism is a particular sort. His working class characters actually look like real people rather than airbrushed movie stars. At least in the case of All or Nothing, most of the characters would be deemed physically undesirable in mainstream cinema, young Sally Hawkins being an exception. This is in no way meant to diminish the prowess of the performers themselves—Timothy Spall, in particular, no matter how many movies he makes, has an everyman quality that goes beyond his physicality.
But there’s also a formal quality to Leigh’s work, and to this film in particular, that lends to its sense of realism. That quality is expansiveness; All or Nothing features a surfeit of characters and subplots that, rather than feeling incomplete when the film draws to a close, seem to have lives of their own that extend far beyond the confines of the film’s two hours. Although the three families at the film’s center live in adjacent apartments, the way each character’s trajectory shoots off independently, frequently crossing those of the other characters, suggests the unfathomable inner life each one contains. It is not the type of ensemble film we’ve become inured to—the contrived, everything-is-connected stories exemplified by Paul Haggis’s Crash—but an almost arbitrary web of very ordinary people whose lives intersect in the unremarkable ways they would in real life. It begins to seem as if any character in the film, no matter how brief their screen time, is the protagonist of their own story. If that isn’t realism—that rare ability to imbue every human being that graces the screen with an authentic inner life—I don’t know what is.