Writer/director Mike Leigh’s (“Topsy-Turvy”) most recent work is not one to watch if you want thrilling action or escapist cinema. Set in southeast London (think south Boston, but with less money and no Matt Damon), the film primarily follows Phil (Timothy Spall, “Nicholas Nickleby”), a taxi driver who barely makes a meager living with his children Rory (James Corden) and Rachel (Alison Garland), and his longtime girlfriend Penny (Lesley Manville, “Topsy-Turvy”), whom he never married.
In their run-down housing complex live a few other families, each with their own set of problems and all driven by a shortage of money. Penny’s friend Maureen (Ruth Sheen, “Secrets & Lies”) and her daughter Donna (Helen Coker, “Nicholas Nickleby”) have their own set of problems, including Donna’s abusive boyfriend. Phil’s friend and his family also enter into the picture, but serve more as accessories to the action that anything else.
The children in these families propel the film’s climactic action, with Donna finding out that she is pregnant by her boyfriend and Rory suffering a heart attack. This heart attack is the closest the film comes to melodrama and may be what saves it from total one-dimensionality. It is the event which accelerates the conflict within Phil’s family and forces them to confront their misgivings and problems with one another. The ending of the film provides some conclusion to the tensions introduced in the film but does not betray the realist style of the film.
The film is chock full of wonderful, incredibly realistic performances from the very British cast. Timothy Spall plays a very tender but much fatter version of Willy Loman from “Death of a Salesman,” who seems to fall prey to everything the world throws at him. The performances from the children stand out with James Cordon as Rory, but especially with Alison Garland as Rachel, whose subtle performance provides a fascinating glimpse into the optimism possible in this world.
These performances, however, do not revive what remains a dull storyline that does not succeed in uniting the audience with the characters and their struggles. Mike Leigh certainly elicited the best out of his actors but did not provide enough compelling scenery or photography to keep viewers interested. The film very skillfully avoids melodrama, but it falters by trying so hard to do so. It was a valiant effort, but Leigh fails to use his style to a more fruitful end.