REVIEW by Willard Manus

Writer/director Mike Leigh continues his ongoing investigation into British working-class life in ALL OR NOTHING, his eighth feature film. Words like uncompromising, unsentimental and tough-minded always come into play when trying to describe his work. Though such previous films as SECRETS AND LIES and TOPSY TURVY revealed that he does have a sense of humor, Leigh for the most part creates bleak, grim portraits of "ordinary" Brits trapped in dead-end circumstances. But so skilled are he and his actors that they keep you rooted in your seat, caught up in the on-screen drama, no matter how downbeat and painful it is.

Leigh achieves this by working in unusual fashion with his small band of collaborators (actors like Timothy Spall, Brenda Blethyn and David Thewlis). First he comes up with a theme or subject, then he and the performers hold lengthy discussions, improvisations and rehearsals over a period of six or seven months. Then, when the characters have been fleshed out, Leigh sits down to write a shooting script which he himself directs. It results in a heightened realism and a depth of characterization that make most other naturalistic films seem fake or superficial.

ALL OR NOTHING is another example of this unique approach to filmmaking. Rich in detail, packed with solid performances--for the most part the actors are so good you don't think they're acting--and pungent, profane dialogue, ALL OR NOTHING might not break new ground, but it is certainly a powerful and disturbing movie, one that will surely be in contention when Oscar time comes around.

Leigh doesn't write linear screenplays that correspond to the theories of such Hollywood script gurus as Robert McKee and Syd Field. His stories aren't broken down into three acts and they don't have clearcut protagonists and antagonists (good guys vs bad guys). Leigh works in more loose, impressionistic fashion, jumping from one character to another, letting vignettes and slices of life pile up and tell the story, saving big, formal confrontational scenes for last.

The lack of focus and conventional narrative can sometimes be disconcerting, even confusing. ALL OR NOTHING offers a slew of characters, ranging from violent, abusive husbands, clerks in a supermarket, and inarticulate teenagers to the inmates of an old folks' home. True, all are put up on screen in dramatic fashion and given highly charged things to say, but they tend to come and go too quickly and abruptly, registering very little.

Ultimately, though, Leigh begins to concentrate on a handful of people, most of whom live on the outskirts of London in a crumbling, graffiti-stained housing project. Penny (Lesley Manville) works as a supermarket cashier; her hulking husband Phil (Spall) drives a radio cab (which is owned by an unpleasant African and his terminally bored daughter). Penny and Phil have two teenaged kids, Rachel (Alison Garland) and Rory (James Corden), who are not only obesely fat but numbed to life. Rory can't hold down a job, while Rachel, a sad, inarticulate girl, scrapes out a living as a hospital orderly.

For a while things seem hopeless for the family. Penny and Phil have stopped loving each other; Rory snarls at them like a junk-yard dog; Rachel withdraws deeper and deeper into silence. They eat bad food, swill beer and curse each other out--this is not a family you will ever see in an American sitcom.

But then a crisis--Rory having a heart attack--jolts them out of their despondency and boredom, and they are forced to change the way they live and think.

It is to Leigh's credit that he doesn't try to give ALL OR NOTHING a neat, happy ending--but neither does he settle for the the inevitability of defeat and disillusion. ALL OR NOTHING may be a dark, difficult film, but the darkness is dappled with pinpoints of light, glimmers of love and hope.