Dir: Mike Leigh. UK-France 2002. 127 mins.

After a brief detour into history (and real-life individuals) with his 1999 Gilbert and Sullivan drama, Topsy Turvy, Mike Leigh returns to more familiar terrain with this subtle, precisely observed contemporary story of ordinary South London folk. Comic but also melancholy - although it ends on a cautiously affirmative note - All Or Nothing takes a low-key approach to some very elusive themes, including loneliness, illness, the difficulty of finding and expressing love and, as the title indicates, the terribly fragile line dividing happiness and despair. However, after winning the Palme D'Or here in 1996, Leigh's Secrets And Lies went on to enjoy a vigorous arthouse career. Similarly, All Or Nothing has a good chance - if given critical support and a festival nod - of reaching the same audience, thanks to its compassionate tone and strong ensemble of regulars, led by a compelling performance from Timothy Spall, who is an early contender for Best Actor honours.

In a role with curious echoes of his character in Patrice Chereau's Intimacy, Spall plays Phil, a London minicab driver who sees the love of Penny, his long-time partner (Lesley Manville), ebbing away. His daughter Rachel (Alison Garland) works as a cleaner in a home for the elderly, while his belligerent, grossly overweight son Rory (James Corden) loafs around the house insulting his parents and getting into arguments with other youths on the run-down housing estate where they live. Around this family orbits a cluster of workmates and neighbours, each with their own serio-comic problems.

As all Londoners know, the city's cab drivers are of a uniquely philosophical bent and Phil, a firm believer in kismet and what he calls "the fickle finger of fate", is no exception. Like Secrets And Lies (in which Spall played a high-street photographer), this film is peppered with humorous vignettes showing him with clients, while he expounds his views of life and in turn is treated to those of a series of oddball individuals.

The film's mood gradually darkens as it uncovers tensions within his family. Penny, a supermarket cashier, is exasperated by Phil's slobbishness (he gets up late and sports permanent stubble and greasy hair) and his utter failure as a breadwinner. One sequence pins this down in the most literal sense when he presents his unimpressed wife with a mountain of long-life burger buns which he's been given in lieu of a tip. Another, more poignant, moment shows him grubbing humiliatingly for small change down the backs of chairs, finally cadging a loan from the reluctant Penny in order to pay his weekly dues to the cab company.

But everything changes when, out of the blue, their son is struck down by a serious, possibly life-threatening illness. Depressed and frustrated, Phil has gone AWOL at the crucial moment, and the film's climax is a boldly extended confrontation in which he makes one last-ditch attempt to prove his seriousness and regain Penny's love. It's a riveting, painful scene which carries a explosive emotional charge.

While some audiences might wonder whether the couple's differences can be settled as readily as the ending suggests, it's also part of the film's broader vision: as disadvantaged and inarticulate as people may seem, they have in them the need and often the capacity for happiness. In any case, the plethora of unresolved subplots gives the impression, as usual with Leigh, of other lives continuing to unfold off-screen in all their chaos and complexity.

In some of his previous work, Leigh has trained a cruel eye on certain secondary characters, but the mood of All Or Nothing is more gentle and forgiving. In the course of the film, most people in it unveil surprising qualities: at a karaoke night, Penny's neighbour (Ruth Sheen) takes the stage and, against expectation, has a melodious voice; a sluttish teenager proves her mettle in an emergency; and a weird loner conceals unexpected, if disturbing, passions.

Dick Pope, Leigh's regular cinematographer, creates images of a particularly unglamorous area of South London that contrive to be both gritty and luminous, while Andrew Dickson's string-dominated score lends the film an elegant, intimate feel. Both enhance the wider sense that meaning and even beauty can be found in the grungiest places.

Prod cos: Les Films Alain Sarde, Studio Canal, Thin Man
UK dist: UGC Films Uk
Int'l sales: StudioCanal
Exec prods:
Alain Sarde, Pierre Edelman
Simon Channing Williams
Dick Pope
Prod des: Eve Stewart
Ed: Lesley Walker
Music: Andrew Dickson
Cast: Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Alison Garland, James Croden, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Sam Kelly