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ALL OR NOTHING ****

By GUY FLATLEY

CAST: Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Alison Garland, James Corden, Ruth Sheen, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Kathryn Hunter, Sally Hawkins, Helen Coker, Daniel Mays, Ben Crompton, Robert Wilfort

WRITER/DIRECTOR: Mike Leigh



Mike Leigh sent us soaring with his last movie, "Topsy-Turvy," a robust, glowingly nostalgic portrait of the lives and loves of Gilbert and Sullivan. But I advise you to fasten your seat belt and prepare for a crash landing when you take in the British director's new movie. Leigh is definitely back on contemporary ground, drawing us into a physical and psychological landscape every bit as thorny as the terrain of his "Naked" and "Secrets & Lies." Gone are the quaint, ornately costumed characters of "The Mikado" and "H.M.S. Pinafore," replaced by blokes who belch and women who belt down more than an occasional brew. These are blue-collar stiffs who sweat and swear, couples who squabble or sulk in silence. No one dares to dream of escape.

At the center of Leigh's unsparing drama is a poor, ill-educated, emotionally tattered family that gives new meaning to the term dysfunctional. Phil (Timothy Spall), the nominal head of the clan, is an unkempt, going-on-empty cab driver who finds it harder and harder to pull himself out of bed in the morning and seems never to pick up a paying passenger; Penny (Lesley Manville), his common-law wife, is a supermarket cashier whose real labor begins when she returns to the bleak "housing estate" she calls home in South-East London; and Rachel and Rory (Alison Garland and James Corden), their two grown children (grown, in fact, to the point of life-threatening obesity), probably haven't smiled in a decade or so. Rachel, a virtually speechless loner, mops floors in a home for the elderly; Rory, who devotes a disproportionate amount of his time to verbally abusing his mother, refuses to look for a job.

Not a pretty picture. And I haven't even begun to tell you about the family's friends and neighbors. Just let me say that those losers almost make Phil, Penny, Rachel and Rory look like winners. Why, then, should you pay to see so much suffering and grief? One reason is that you would have to travel far beyond your neighorhood cineplex to find anything approaching the naked truth and beauty of the performances given by Spall, Manville, Corden and Garland. But the main reason you should see "All or Nothing" is to observe the uncommon light Leigh manages to shine on his dark subject. Through his compassion, humor and clarity of vision, he discovers a hidden strength in these people, a tiny seed of courage that just might open the path to freedom or, at least, self-awareness. Astonishingly, as the lights came up, I actually felt a tinge of optimism. And that means "All or Nothing" is some kind of miracle.