(director/writer: Mike Leigh; cinematographer: Dick Pope; editor: Lesley Walker; music: Andrew Dickson; cast: Timothy Spall (Phil), Lesley Manville (Penny), Alison Garland (Rachel), James Corden (Rory), Marion Bailey (Carol), Daniel Mays (Jason), Sally Hawkins (Samantha), Helen Coker (Donna), Ruth Sheen (Maureen), Paul Jesson (Ron), Gary McDonald (Neville), Ben Crompton (Craig); Runtime: 128; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Simon Channing Williams; United Artists; 2002-UK)


“It’s a wonderful, sobering, heart-felt drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director and writer Mike Leigh (“Naked, Secrets & Lies“) returns to his more familiar dramatic roots from his splashy Gilbert and Sullivan backstage musical biopic Topsy-Turvy to this small but earnest and richly drawn character study of a film. It’s set during a weekend in-and-around a bleak South London public housing project, as it follows three depressing lower-class working families trying to cope with their hard life. Leigh brings a sharpness to the human drama by the honesty and poignancy of the script, which was prepared in conjunction with the actors. The film is also invigorated by the subtle comic elements Leigh introduces into the grim story.

The performances by the ensemble cast are superb. Leigh regulars Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville give the year’s best performances for an actor and an actress. If you don’t get depressed yourself, there’s what goes for an uplifting payoff in the end. I was deeply moved by the plight of the characters and was satisfied with the way the story was resolved without actually being resolved. It’s a wonderful, sobering, heart-felt drama. If it lacks anything (which it does), that can be because Leigh doesn’t upset the order of thing and keeps politics out of the story and everything thereby seems relatively tame. Instead he takes all the misery facing the families and leaves it at that for them to work it out for themselves without any help from the institutions or from any master plan. This is a film about surviving from day to day, and it reflects the reality that faces most people in the world. For those who go to films to escape reality, be warned you won’t be escaping from anything here.

Of the three families living in the same graffiti-ridden housing complex, the film keys in on the depressive, overweight cab driver Phil (Spall) and his slim, mousy, supermarket cashier, common-law wife, Penny (Manville), and their uncommunicative, foul-mouth, obese son, Rory (Corden), and their docile, good-natured, overweight daughter, Rachel (Garland), who works as an orderly in a home for the aged. The mood of the family is uneasy: Rory has a nasty disposition and regularly curses at his mum; Rachel is withdrawn and has no love life and is resigned to accept her unhappy lot in life, as the only one who shows a romantic interest in her is an obnoxious co-worker who is old enough to be her grandfather; Phil can’t get it together to go to work days and become the main provider in the house, and is so much in a funk he can’t function as a proper father; while Penny takes on the role of martyr to a dysfunctional family and seems to have lost any respect for her hubby, and only stays with him because she has no expectations or hope for the future. Yet she remains with him as if she were bound by duty, just as she’s a caring mother despite her son’s hostility towards her.

Ron (Jesson) works as a cab driver in the same place Phil does and is a depressive with an alcohol problem. His even more depressive wife Carol (Bailey) is also a lush, as both can barely function (these two were caricature figures whose roles never developed as much as they could have). Their slutty, idler, daughter, Samantha (Hawkins), has contempt for both and has eyes only for a neighbor’s repulsive boyfriend Jason (Mays), whom she tries to seduce by wearing a revealing blouse whenever he visits the complex. She’s also being stalked by a creepy boy in her complex named Craig (Chapman), whom she feels repulsed by but can’t shake him off.

Also living in the complex, next door to Ron, is Maureen (Sheen), a co-worker of Penny’s. She’s a single mom who tries to make things cheery by cracking banal jokes, and she earns extra money by doing private laundry services for those in the housing complex. For fun she goes out with the other two complex ladies to this dreary bar, where her only joy is when she sings the song “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” on a karaoke night. Her sullen daughter Donna (Coker), a clerk in a convenience store, whom she tries to be both a friend and mother to, has become pregnant to her bullying boyfriend Jason and has been told by him that he not only doesn’t love her, but he doesn’t even like her and that she’s a lousy lay. She’s now faced with the same life decision her mother had when she became pregnant without a husband, whether to have an abortion or keep the baby.

Everything looks hopeless for the three families. Things get worst for Phil and Penny when Rory suffers a heart attack while playing football with his project friends and is rushed to the hospital. When Phil can’t be reached because he turned off his cab phone and drove out to the shore to be alone and think about the funk he’s in, his wife’s longtime disappointment with him now comes out in the open. The culminating event is an argument between Phil and Penny as he accuses her of not loving or even liking or respecting him.

This stagy production makes for spellbinding drama. It’s through the naturalistic performances that a great depth in character is reached. The main characters find redemption for themselves not by winning the lottery but in the small things in life that hold them together. It’s a most believable drama, and one that goes out of its taxi fare zone to point out that no matter how desperate one’s situation is– humanity is dependent on love and decency. The coldness and harshness of life are conditions that might never be solved by politics; but, for Leigh, human beings can affirm the quality of life when they find some peace within themselves. Rachel found such peace when she reads a book in bed at night and shuts off the horrors of her dull life. Maureen finds it by looking at the brighter side of things rather than dwelling on her misery. Phil and Penny find some peace from their economic struggles when they begin to communicate with each other instead of secretively brooding. Despite the bleak setting, believe it or not, Leigh paints a rosy picture for those who can open up and find love. The alternative for him is nothing.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”