Despite Career Girls (1997) and Topsy-Turvy (1999), Mike Leigh is probably best remembered in Australia for Secrets And Lies (1996) starring Brenda Blethyn, which won many awards around the world including the Golden Palm at Cannes and the Most Popular Film at the Sydney Film Festival. Before that, he made the multi-award-winning and controversial Naked (1993).

All Or Nothing is the 60-year-old Mancunian’s eighth feature in nearly 40 years of film making. It continues his long-established tradition of working without a formalised script, allowing his actors to improvise. Leigh is at his best with character-driven films and All Or Nothing is no exception. This film also draws together an experienced cast, led by Timothy Spall, currently on ABC TV in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and making his sixth appearance for Leigh.

All Or Nothing takes us to the rundown housing estates of South London and the flat of Phil and Penny who are struggling to stay afloat and living hand to mouth. The film is totally miserable, totally poetic, totally Mike Leigh, not quite Secrets And Lies but still both mesmerising and repellent.

Keenly observed awkward characters who are totally inept in their lives are a Leigh speciality. Phil is a minicab driver and Spall plays his bulky character to the last wrung-out ounce of down-trodden, lank-haired, worn-out embarrassment. Lesley Manville, another long-time Leigh collaborator, plays his partner Penny, a whippet-thin supermarket cashier, taut with the effort of keeping her family together and afloat. Both are excellent.

Supporting Spall and Manville are a great ensemble cast of largely stage and television actors, some making their film debuts.

All Or Nothing has all the usual elements including obscene language, violence, unhappy kids with no direction and single mothers. Leigh shows his mastery by revealing characters without proffering solutions to the seemingly insurmountable social problems. We are not presented with sad caricatures but rather the film tells a relatively humorous survival story set in the towers of broken dreams which are the London housing estates.

Leigh’s latest opus is a heartbreaking journey and, like the work of Ken Loach, whose most recent film Sweet Sixteen is currently screening in Sydney, it isn’t easy chillout-type viewing. Despite the relentlessly bleak nature of their subject matter, somehow Leigh and Loach are notable for the honesty of their work and their singular determination to show the long-term effects of Thatcherite policy on UK society. All Or Nothing is well supported by Andrew Dickson’s score and Dick Pope’s cinematography.

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