Fond of austerity and suspicious of success, British director Mike Leigh tends to retrench after his hits. Life Is Sweet (1990), the first of his films to register in the U.S., was followed, in 1993, by the blisteringly raw one-man show Naked — which, three years later, was in turn succeeded by the popular Secrets and Lies, with its large cast and central family drama. When Secrets and Lies also proved successful, Leigh retrenched further, with 1997’s Career Girls, to the kind of two-handed drama, filled with shrill and alienating presences, that he had made for the BBC in the 1970s, back when his directorial credit still read, “Devised by Mike Leigh.” Now, three years after the uncharacteristically extravagant and exuberant Topsy-Turvy, Leigh returns, with All or Nothing, to his core concerns: character, class, family, feelings.

Be warned: All or Nothing is one of Leigh‘s harsher, bleaker works. The film is set on an ugly, dilapidated London council estate much like the one in 1981’s stark, spare Meantime, and its principal characters, a depressive taxi driver and his common-law wife, resemble the depressive dispatch rider and his girlfriend in 1988‘s High Hopes. Still, strong as the urge may be to dismiss All or Nothing with a reference to the title of Leigh’s avowedly miserablist 1971 debut, Bleak Moments, the film isn‘t itself bleak, miserable or depressive — though these adjectives could certainly be applied to any of its characters. Instead, it’s a strangely stirring experience that finds warmth in the coldest environment and makes each crumb of emotional comfort feel like a 10-course banquet.

Phil and Penny (Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville) are barely scraping by in Rip-off Britain. She works a supermarket register; he drives a cab and digs around in the couch for gas money. Their children, Rory and Rachel (James Corden, Alison Garland), are seriously overweight. Rachel, unhappy and silent, works as a janitor, while Rory, unhappy and bellicose, loafs in front of the telly. Penny‘s friend Carol (Marion Bailey) is the estate’s resident useless alcoholic, whose daughter, Samantha (Sally Hawkins), is its resident jailbait. Another friend, Maureen (Ruth Sheen), struggles to deal with her sullen daughter, Donna (Helen Coker), who‘s pregnant by her abusive boyfriend, Jason (Daniel Mays). Meanwhile, no one really connects with anyone else. Penny, Phil and their kids, crushed by poverty and spiritual vacancy, simply don’t communicate. Carol and her husband, Ron, shout through a thick booze-fog. Donna and Jason‘s only connections are through obscenities, fucking and fisticuffs, and one of Samantha’s suitors can express his feelings only by carving a big “S” on his shoulder. The kids rarely address their parents without recourse to the terms “Shah-dap!,” “Fah-koff!” or “Dunno!”

The characters may be inarticulate, but the same can‘t be said of Leigh’s handling of them. As usual, his procedure is first to delineate with great meticulousness the people, their social surroundings and the particular, personal situations that oppress them — then to drop the bomb that galvanizes all the characters into a re-assessment of their lives. Here, it comes when Rory is hospitalized and his parents must deal first with each other in order to help their son. Near the end of the movie, Spall and Manville — he with his lovably buttockish face, she all birdlike helplessness and sorrow — struggle back toward each other in two perfectly judged, slow-burning scenes of reconciliation, the second of them almost wordless. The detail and care that have been lavished on these characters by the actors and Leigh pay off magnificently as richly legible emotions eddy and swirl across these two unpretty, unremarkable faces. The warmth in this flood of unleashed feelings reminds one of another of All or Nothing‘s brightest moments, when Maureen, out with Penny and Carol at karaoke night, sings an old Crystal Gayle song in an unexpectedly clear, strong, soulful voice. For a few moments, the strength and joy that lurk hidden in the characters burst forth, testament to Leigh’s belief in the transformative, restorative powers of performance itself, a belief thoroughly exemplified by the movie as a whole.

ALL OR NOTHING | Written and directed by MIKE LEIGH | Produced by SIMON CHANNING-WILLIAMS | Released by MGMUnited Artists | At selected theaters

LA Weekly