THE ROAD FROM
by Howard Schumann
Mike Leigh has given us powerful portrayals of the underclass
before, in such films as Naked, Secrets and Lies, and
Life is Sweet, but none more powerful and moving than his latest,
All or Nothing. Here he looks at three families living
in a dreary South London housing complex, capturing
their lives with an intimacy that is almost unbearable. All or Nothing
has a documentary feel, as if the camera was just planted in the middle
of the living room to observe. The conditions are familiar: unemployment
and underemployment, alcoholism, teen pregnancy, isolation, and the
inevitable loss of self-esteem and despair. This is, however, more than
a drama of oppressive social conditions, but also of lack of communication
between people who desperately need love but are too afraid or lethargic
to ask for it.
Phil (Timothy Spall) is an overweight taxi driver who
gets up late in the day and works intermittently, barely communicating
with his family, except for a few grunts. His
philosophy of life is expressed as "We're all born alone. We die alone.
There's nothing we can do about it." It is obvious, from the start that
something is amiss at home. Phil says nothing when his son Rory (James
Cordon) hurls words of abuse at his common-law wife Penny. Rory is an
obese bully who does nothing but lay around the house, watching TV and
hurling insults at everyone in his path. Sister Rachel (Alison Garland),
has a job cleaning up at a nursing home, but seems to only be going
through the motions of living when she's not interacting with patients.
Penny works in a supermarket and does just about everything to keep
the family going, but it never seems to be enough.
film's sub-plots add to the feeling of life reeling out of control,
although none of them are fully developed. Maureen's teenage daughter
is pregnant by some lout that doesn't give two hoots about her. Another
resident, unemployed Samantha (Sally Hawkins) hates her parents and
finds herself seducing a very strange young man (Ben Crompton) lurking
in the shadows of the complex grounds. The film eventually concentrates
mainly on Phil and his family. When a medical emergency occurs, the
family begins to open up and express long buried feelings of hurt and
resentment. Spall's performance is a revelation. His unshaven face,
disheveled hair, and hangdog expression communicate deep resignation.
film is bleak, but Leigh mixes its heartbreak with joy. When a neighbor
(Ruth Sheen) sings ''Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,'' at a karaoke
bar, her eyes shine with a glow that seems at odds with the rest of
her life, but is so contagious that even her most dispirited friends
take notice. Leigh does not offer simple solutions, but seems to be
telling us that although life is painful, we can reach beyond the pain
to get in touch with the beauty. He shows us that love is the glue that
holds families together, and that either there is love or there's nothing.
As a result, All or Nothing pulsates with a humanity that, in
spite of its bleakness, is life-affirming and ultimately uplifting,
reminding us that beyond bitterness, there is love, and beyond suffering,
there is grace.
Son, the latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (La
Promesse, Rosetta), reveals its power only gradually. The
story concerns Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), a lonely carpentry teacher
at a vocational rehabilitation school in Belgium - a stolid, ordinary
looking, and inexpressive man. His eyes are hidden behind thick glasses
and his back is protected by a support brace. His entire being seems
to be "in permanent disequilibrium," yet he conveys a pent-up energy
that seems ready to explode. Olivier has been separated from his wife
Magali (Isabella Soupart) since their young son was murdered during
a bungled robbery, and the half-hearted way they interact indicate the
mourning has not been completed. When Francis (Morgan Marinne), a 16-year
old boy just released from reform school, appears at the workshop, Olivier
seems strangely obsessed with the youngster, at first rejecting, then
taking him on at the workshop.
much happens during the first half hour. The focus is on the minutiae
of the workplace, the techniques of woodworking, the source of lumber,
precise measurements, how to hold and carry wood and so forth. The claustrophobic
camera follows Olivier around the workshop, breathing down his neck,
back, and ears, creating a disorienting rhythm of almost unbearable
intensity. There is no soundtrack other than the hammers and electric
saws. Olivier follows Francis around with his eyes and we suspect there
may be something unusual going on. This is confirmed when Olivier secretly
steals the keys to Francis' apartment and lies on his bed.
Dardennes' austere methods are designed to reveal the human soul with
as little mediation as possible. This honest approach works beautifully.
The Son challenges us to look at our capacity for forgiveness
and, in the process, articulates what it means to be human. According
to the directors, the film is about "The moral imagination, or the capacity
to put oneself in the place of another." Every detail in this wonderful
film leads, with a power that seems inevitable, to a startling conclusion
of profound beauty.
in Africa, this year's winner of the Foreign Film Oscar, tells
the story of a Jewish family that emigrates from Breslau, Germany, to
Kenya in East Africa, immediately prior to World War II. Brilliantly
brought to life by director Caroline Link from an autobiographical novel
by Stefanie Zweig, the film has the look and feel of a sprawling Hollywood
epic, but its natural and honest performances allow it to avoid the
pitfalls of melodrama and cliché.
The picture takes the form of luminous recollection, being
narrated by the grown-up daughter Regina. Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze),
a lawyer by profession, arrives to work on a farm outside Nairobi in
Kenya, many years before the uprising in the 50s against British colonialism.
He is suffering from malaria and is being nursed back to health by his
and bodyguard, Owuor, depicted without condescension, and played with
natural assurance by native Kenyan actor Sidede Onyulo. Required to
leave his money and possessions in Germany, Redlich arrives without
material trappings. When his wife Jettel (Julianne Köhler) and
five-year old daughter Regina arrive from Germany, Jettel's expectations
of continuing her middle class ways are quickly dashed. Her husband
is incredulous when she purchases an expensive evening gown before leaving
Germany instead of bringing a refrigerator for the family's use. Marital
problems soon arise out of the stress of isolation, and it often seems
that the two are simply mismatched, he being an idealist and she a creature
of comfort. When Jettel foolishly expresses the belief that the natives
will soon learn to speak German and treats Owuor with disdain, Redlich
scolds her for treating the natives the way the Nazis are treating the
unfettered love and acceptance of children is personified by daughter
Regina (portrayed as a teenager by Karoline Eckertz) who sees Africans
as people, not as "Negroes" or members of a tribe. She forms a loving
bond with Owuor and befriends the African children, absorbing the Masai
and Pokot cultures and learning words in their native tongue. As the
family slowly begins to adjust to their new environment, however, all
Germans in Kenya are suddenly interned as enemy aliens, and they must
leave the farm.
film touched me in several ways: as a reminder of what it is feels like
to be an outsider, of the stresses of life in a new environment, of
the pain of awaiting news of the fate of loved ones many miles away,
and of the endurance of family. Its strength lies in the ability of
its characters to grow as people, to connect with and love the land,
and to be empowered by the growing harmony between cultures. Enhanced
by the stark African landscape, the mix of classical music and African
percussion, and the rhythm of Kenyan tribal dances and rituals, Nowhere
in Africa is, to paraphrase Keats, a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
©2003 Howard Schumann