Life's not fair, and Mike Leigh knows it

Mike Leigh is often described as a curmudgeonly observer of life's most disheartening sides, and he's earned this reputation with dark-toned movies like "Naked" and "Life Is Sweet."

But there's also a humane streak running through his work, revealing deep compassion for ordinary people bludgeoned by injustices of class, gender, and economics.

The aptly titled "All or Nothing" reveals both aspects of Leigh's artistic coin. Much of the film is a downbeat portrait of Britain's working poor, focusing on an unhappy cab driver named Phil, his common-law wife, Penny, and their two grown children, who make up in girth what they lack in civility and sense.

They live in a South London apartment complex with a generally depressing group of neighbors.

Leigh is at his best when he etches the day-to-day experiences of Phil and his family and shows how a sudden catastrophe delivers a crushing blow to their meager amount of hard-won comfort. It's after this calamity that Leigh's humanity emerges, suggesting that a shared journey through life's worst nightmare may bring out loyalty.

Leigh directed "All or Nothing" with his usual technique, feeling his way to a completed screenplay through extensive improvisations and rehearsals with his marvelous ensemble of performers. They include the gifted Timothy Spall, who was so memorable in "Secrets & Lies," and Lesley Manville, who makes Penny one of the film's most poignantly believable characters.

Leigh is one of the rare directors who feels acting is the heart and soul of cinema. He allows his cast members to make creative contributions to the story and dialogue. This method almost never fails him, and it works superbly here.

"All or Nothing" suffers from touches of sentimentality in its last portion, which isn't quite persuasive in its effort to lighten the melancholy story with elements of optimism and redemption. Many viewers may welcome this last-minute brightening, though. If so, "All or Nothing" could join "Topsy Turvy" and "Secrets & Lies" as one of Leigh's most widely enjoyed recent films.

• Rated R for vulgarity, adult themes.

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