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Low Life 

Flick Chick

In the gloom of a harsh winter, you can't blame moviegoers for seeking the escapism of romantic comedies. But for anyone fed up with quickly forgotten Hollywood drivel like Just Married, Mike Leigh's All or Nothing offers a bleak portrait of love that lingers in the memory long afterward. The film, playing this weekend as part of the World Cinema Series at the Savoy Theater in Montpelier, is guaranteed to make even the most depressed soul feel giddy by comparison.

The setting alone -- a drab South London housing project -- creates a certain sense of foreboding. Although those stark exteriors reflect the downward mobility of three families living there, what makes this story so compelling is their needlessly broken hearts.

Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville are brilliant as Phil and Penny Bassett, a couple just going through the motions after two decades of common-law togetherness. He's a sad-sack cab driver psychologically paralyzed by fatalism; she's a hard-working supermarket cashier who resents his lack of ambition. Their overweight teenaged children show telltale signs of dysfunction: Rachel (Alison Garland), a nursing home janitor, is seriously withdrawn. The unemployed Rory (James Corden) is lazy and belligerent.

In a nearby flat, Penny's pal Maureen -- a single mother portrayed by the riveting Ruth Sheen, known for her work in Leigh's 1988 High Hopes -- has a more cheerful outlook. Yet her own angry daughter (Helen Coker) is entangled in a dead-end relationship with a narcissistic boy.

The occupants of the third household in this tortured triumvirate may be the most damaged. Samantha (Sally Hawkins) is a sarcastic adolescent whose promiscuity masks her dismal upbringing by parents who are not just alcoholics but fall-down, sloppy drunks.

Leigh has a penchant for examining misery. Sometimes, as in Life Is Sweet and Secrets and Lies, he infuses his films with enough humor to help the harsh medicine go down. But the writer-director doesn't blink when probing the grimmest corners of human existence, as he does in the disturbing Naked.

After his atypical involvement with historical costume drama in 1999's Topsy-Turvy, a musical about Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta partnership, Leigh has returned to the familiar terrain of contemporary working-class communities. The ensemble in All or Nothing includes many terrific performers who have been part of his loose-knit acting troupe for years. Their approach to each project incorporates both the rigor of rehearsals and, though they're following a script, the freedom of improvisation.

As a result, nothing feels contrived in Leigh's pictures. They tend to capture the unflinching realism so often lacking even in theoretically gutsy American independent releases. This is not to say his tales lack uplift. Other than Naked, about women injured by a brutally obsessive young man, the characters in each film somehow manage to reach self-awareness, if not redemption.

After a crisis, the Bassetts -- an appropriate name, given Spall's hangdog appearance -- begin to find the courage to change. The message seems to be that no matter how impossible the odds against actual happiness, a little affection can open the creaky doors to salvation.

The Hollywood Reporter is always a reliable source for entertainment news relevant to Vermont. A recent issue of the trade magazine yielded information about several productions in the pipeline:

-The screenplay for Mona Lisa Smile, with Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and current "It Girl" Maggie Gyllenhaal, was written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. The scribes were Burlington residents in the 1970s, when Konner sold homemade sandwiches door-to-door at UVM dorms.

-For better or worse, Luis Guzman of Cabot is featured in Dumb & Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, a kind of sequel to the Jim Carrey comedy without Jim Carrey.

-Hidalgo, written by the Stowe area's John Fusco of Thunderheart fame, stars Viggo Mortensen, a hunky hero in Lord of the Rings.

-Seabiscuit has Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper, the orchard thief in Adaptation. William H. Macy, a Goddard College graduate who keeps a getaway home in Woodbury, is also in the cast. Look for him, too, in a thriller called U-Boat as well as Cooler, which earned raves at the just-ended Sundance Film Festival.

-And as director of what might turn out to be the late Nell Carter's final role, Burlington native Martin Guigui is credited with Swing, a fantasy that dares to pair sexpot Jacqueline Bisset and comic Jonathan Winters.

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