Rating: R for language, sexual situations, domestic violence
Run Time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Mike Leigh (“Secrets and Lies”) knows his way around messy dysfunction, a fact acutely revealing in this grim observation of three working-class English families on the brink of destruction.
Alcoholism, pregnancy, obesity and poverty are fodder for Leigh’s intensive character study. Phil (Leigh muse Timothy Spall) is an emotionally barren cabbie, working intermittent hours to support his common-law wife Penny (Lesley Manville) and their two sullen, overweight teenagers. (Alison Garland and James Corden as Rachel and Rory). Maureen (Ruth Sheen) is Phil and Penny’s neighbor, a capable, hard-working single mom whose daughter Donna (Helen Coker) is being knocked around, and knocked up, by her loser boyfriend Jason (Daniel Mays). Samantha (Sally Hawkins) is the wanton daughter of Ron and Carol (Paul Jesson and Marion Bailey) – he a cabbie colleague of Phil’s and she an uncontrollable lush.
Beaten down by their hardscrabble lives, the trio of unfortunate relations bob and weave through their lackluster days. Phil has lost touch with his soulmate, and is desperate to return to her good graces. Maureen encourages Donna to dump her abusive squeeze. Samantha disguises the pain of her parents’ neglect by flaunting her body for attention, while Rory’s disregard for his own hefty frame finally betrays him.
The rhythm of their unrelenting despair bonds these hard-luck souls with a bitter melancholy that’s both fascinating and repellent. Individual tales are keenly observed, each winding itself around the others with unflinching candor. While the younger generation spew vile obscenities to mask their fears, their elders ponder the what-ifs and the have-nots of their lonely existences.
Spall’s homely visage is an arresting study in resigned nuance, and Manville bears the brunt of her despair with something akin to grace. Sheen is the pragmatic glue that tenuously holds this splintered ensemble together. Heavy English cadence requires rapt attention, but it’s well worth the effort. Dark, powerful, and unforgettable.