Suffering comes to us all. For some it seems to be greater than others. This is especially true, it seems, when speaking about the poor, who have less means to bathe themselves in comfort and hide from the harsh realities of life. Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing is populated entirely with poor and suffering people. Three families in an apartment complex are at the center of the story. Everyone in them is struggling to get by, and each has their own sets of problems. There is a harshness to their realities that is palpable, both in dialogue and setting. Words are not minced with these people. They tear each other down with just about everything that comes out of their mouths. Yet none of them seems to have any idea of the effects they might be having on others.In this oppressive climate are the three families: Maureen and her daughter Donna; Ron, Carol, and their daughter Samantha; and Phil, Penny, and their two kids Rachel and Rory. Many shots throughout most of the film isolate the characters from one another – tons of close-ups with very few two-shots. Even at times when there are two-shots, such as in Phil’s cab, they are non-traditional, with characters that aren’t even looking at one another. The people in this film are isolated from any real human relations, even from those with whom they should be most at ease.
The three families end up providing us with different responses to those periods of suffering we find ourselves in at times. Once Donna turns up pregnant, the already shaky relationship with her mother could go either way. In large part, it depends on her mom’s response to the situation. Will it be delicate or harsh or somewhere in between? In the home of Ron and Carol, their daughter Samantha is screaming for attention, going anywhere for it – whether it is to the oddball Jason or the abusive Craig. Whenever she approaches her parents though, they seem to be caught up in their own world of drinking and self-absorption. However, the film finally settles in on Phil and Penny, and as they go through tragedy, we see old wounds raised to the surface. The emotions are raw, the hurt is strong, and the tears flow.
Each of these situations presents in its own way, a response to the unideal situations in our lives. In some ways, they are cautionary tales, helping us to see so easily the kinds of things these people do to hurt each other, often unintentionally. Ultimately the film honors selflessness and humility, as characters are humbled before one another in light of changed circumstances and new information. Phil’s comments near the film’s conclusion illustrate this beautifully. He could easily take a hard line after all the hurt and sort of make this a farewell to his old life. In the same way, Penny could be so overwhelmed with hurt by his words that she not hear where he’s really come from and throw him out. However, both of these characters humble themselves before one another.
And on that final sequence of scenes: The scene immediately preceding the big blow-up was so heart wrenching, as Phil reaches to put his arm around Penny and she pushes him away. And that scene is filmed so perfectly, because he’s allowed to hold it there for a moment, making the viewer hope beyond hope that resolution will come. And just as that thought really begins to take hold, wham, it’s cut off. But that leads to a conversation that is so rich, so real, and such a great payoff after the harsh and largely ambiguous presentation up to that point. I found myself yearning for these two to connect with each other, and in contrast to the many isolated close-ups throughout the film, this scene culminates in two people as close as possible to one another, face to face, heads touching, looking into each other’s eyes. There is real connection there.
It’s a beautifully acted, beautifully executed film that deserves attention and reflection. The dialogue is just right. The characters are real, flesh and blood, human beings. I have had arguments like some of these, not with the words or the topics necessarily, but with the rhythms of language and emotion. This being my third Mike Leigh film (Secrets and Lies, Topsy-Turvy), I guess its time I give him a bit more attention than I have to this point.