All or Nothing

Leigh's all-seeing eye shows Spall at his masterly best

Matthew Sweet
Monday 30 December 2013 05:12
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Mike Leigh knows when not to flinch; when to keep the camera running. His latest film, All or Nothing, is at its best when staring its characters straight in the face.

The face that receives most attention is that of Timothy Spall, who appears to crumple to nothing before the viewers' eyes. As Phil Bassett, a cash-strapped minicab driver from SE10, Spall gives what may be the performance of his career.

He does it with the help of Lesley Manville (as his loveless wife, Penny), and of Alison Garland and James Corden (as his children, Rachel and Rory), but principally he is helped by his director, who allows us time to gaze on the unshaven flanks of Spall's face, his dead eyes, the nihilistic dirtiness of his hair.

When Leigh diverts his focus from Spall and his family, however, the film falters. And the redundancy of some subsidiary characters – a subplot about a self-mutilating young man, particularly – illustrates some of the disadvantages of Leigh's improvisational technique. With all the work he and his cast have put into concocting these people, he can't bear to turn them into swirls of celluloid in the cutting room bin.

There is one subplot that comprises some of the most effective material. It details the relationship between Rachel and one of her colleagues at the cheerless care home in which she works. While the Bassett maisonette is a place where her father cadges the contents of her piggy bank and her brother slouches on the sofa, Sid (Sam Kelly) is the gentlest presence in Rachel's life; a soft-spoken middle-aged man who makes a quiet effort to befriend her, to make the tea breaks between rounds of urine-sluicing and vomit-mopping more pleasant. You hope against hope that his interest in her is benign, but when he asks her to his place to watch a video, you know the kind what he has in mind.

The exchange is handled with the most extraordinary subtlety: Sid is a dirty old man, but Leigh doesn't allow that to negate his kindness. Rachel reassesses her attempted seducer with dumb stoicism. It's one of those moments when you're grateful for Leigh's capacity to stare his characters out; to let a scene outrun the point at which a scripted film would have called cut.

There are too many other moments, though, that the film might have happily lost. All or Nothing is a strong, compassionate piece of work – and undoubtedly one of Leigh's best – but it lacks the uncompromising clarity of its title.

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