Phil Bassett (Timothy Spall) is a taxi driver, but he doesn't fancy the early mornings, never has, so prefers to pick up the customers at later times before the rush hour, meaning his partner Penny (Lesley Manville) feels that they could be making better money if he'd start rising at a busier time for taxis. Phil doesn't listen, and they have to rely on the cash Penny brings in from her job at the local supermarket, but there's also the cash from their daughter Rachel (Alison Garland) who works in a care home for the elderly. Their son Rory (James Corden), however, prefers the layabout existence, and his ungratefulness would try the patience of a saint, but most of the families in their tower block are having the same problems...
When Mike Leigh is creating comedies, he can be very funny indeed, yet when he turns to drama, the opposite is equally as true. Take All or Nothing, for example, where it was as if he tried to get as many of those bleak moments into his work as he had since, well, since Bleak Moments back in the early seventies, and the finished effort was not met with the near-universal acclaim his previous films had been. It was certainly in marked contrast to the comedy that he had made before, Topsy-Turvy, which was such a departure into historical confection that it was as if All or Nothing was made as a reaction to that.
This is "reaction" as one would have a stomach upset after too much cake, with the characters here ekeing out an existence of hand to mouth misery so dark and dejected that it quickly grew over the top, in an under the top production. Leigh was famous for his improvisational methods, shooting hours of footage with his heavily-rehearsed cast and editing it down to a story, yet in this case if there were any lighter elements created during the production, they were ruthlessly pared away so that every character appeared to be in some stage of depression. Only Penny's friend Maureen (Ruth Sheen) seemed to have any perspective that allowed her to see the funnier side of life.
And even she is tested when her daughter Donna (Helen Coker) falls pregnant by her abusive boyfriend; it's like Leigh is standing just offscreen with a stern expression on his face that said there was no room for frivolity here, and anyone cracking a joke will be punished with a plot development which will soon bring them crashing back down to earth. Spall's Phil is such a cowed sad sack of a man that you can fully understand why, after an hour and a half of this, he would feel the need to head off to the seaside for an afternoon, turning off his taxi radio and his mobile phone to get some much needed escape from a drudgery he feels he cannot improve, and it takes a near-tragedy for him to realise that Penny doesn't love him anymore.
It sounds like it should be quietly moving, yet Leigh goes too far and by the time Penny crashes on the way to the hospital you'll be thinking, crikey, you're laying it on a bit thick here, Mike. He would possibly argue that to deserve the happy ending that we get - well, relatively happy ending to what has gone before - we have to have earned it, and the mixture of middle aged working class parents and their going-nowhere offspring do go through the wringer of Leigh's making. Undoubtedly there are families enduring this kind of trial, but to see it concentrated into such a pressurised block of desolation doesn't do wonders for anyone involved. For most, there is light and shade in life, and in All or Nothing by focusing on little but the shade, from the broken relationships to the deadening lack of purpose, those accusations of Leigh's tendency to caricature seem all too accurate. Mournful music by Andrew Dickson.