Hugh Laurie stars as Leo Hopkins in All or Nothing at All (originally airing in 1993 on Britain’s ITV network). The nearly three-hour mini-series allows us a rare opportunity to see Hugh Laurie in an earlier dramatic role, long before he was cast as Gregory House, MD.
Laurie filmed the miniseries at the height of his popularity as a young British comedic actor. At the time, he was best known for his Prince Regent in Black Adder III, Lieutenant George in Black Adder IV (both of which starred Rowan Atkinson); Bertie Wooster to Stephen Fry’s Jeeves in Jeeves and Wooster, and the “Laurie” half of the 1989-1995 sketch comedy series A Bit of Fry and Laurie, which he co-wrote with Fry. To my knowledge, All or Nothing at All never aired on US television; and we are fortunate that, with Laurie’s new-found and well-deserved fame on this side of the pond, ITV has made All or Nothing at All available in the US on DVD.
Leo Hopkins is a young financial analyst working for a prestigious firm in London. The son of a clergyman, he is married to a very wealthy woman and living a very comfortable life on a beautiful estate. Leo’s troubles begin when his brother-in-law, seeing that Leo is living an extremely comfortable life, and knowing that Leo works for an investments firm, asks him to invest a large sum of money on his behalf. Leo balks at the idea and tries to talk him out of it, insisting that his having all the trappings of success does not mean that he knows anything about how best to invest his brother-in-law’s funds. But the brother-in-law insists, and Leo ultimately takes his check. So begins Leo’s personal path on the road to hell, good intentions or not.
Intent to parlay the money and give his brother-in-law a good return, Leo chooses to gamble it on a horse race. Leo’s early success impresses his brother-in-law and his boss, bringing Leo more money “to invest.” Playing on the greed of those who bring him money, and a growing addiction to horse-race betting, Hopkins embroils himself in a terrible web of deceit as wins turn to losses. Hopkins covers his losses with lies building on top of lies and digging himself deeper and deeper into trouble with his boss, his family, and with a high-rolling betting establishment. The depths to which Leo has fallen become crystal clear to him when a blind woman ultimately entrusts him with her charity’s funds — with tragic results.
Leo is haunted by images and memories of his childhood: his father, his father’s values regarding money and sin, and ultimately, his father’s hypocrisy and eventual undoing, which was witnessed by the young Leo. These events have made Leo into the man he is when we enter his sphere: someone who is charming, eager to please, but weak like his father, with a moral compass gone haywire because of his childhood experiences and addiction. He is trapped between trying to please everyone — as he never could his father — and his own weakness. We experience Leo’s memories inter-cut as flashbacks, chilling and frightening to both the young Leo and the grown man he has become.
The director Andrew Grieve was asked in an interview around the time of All Or Nothing At All's release why he would cast the affable Laurie, a man who was literally a household name in the UK for his comedy, as the dark and deeply flawed Leo Hopkins. Grieve responded that he “wanted to cast the nicest man in England” to play the morally bankrupt but charming hero of the story. Laurie’s humanity and vulnerability (poured out through his wonderfully expressive eyes) gives us a reason to sympathize with the character, despite his flaws. There is a scene towards the end where Hopkins is quite literally out on the ledge. He is responsible for much of the havoc and tragedy in the story and common sense would tell us to hate him. Yet, as he sits out there, his life a shambles, desperate and completely alone, we are out there with him, feeling Leo’s pain.
I think Hugh Laurie has a real gift for instilling otherwise not very likable characters with enough humanity and vulnerability to make them sympathetic. It’s an ability he had used all too rarely in those ten or so years between this film and when he shot the first episode of House, MD. But because we see Leo’s vulnerability and his conflict (portrayed so beautifully by Laurie) we don’t seek his demise, but his redemption.
Laurie’s performance in All or Nothing is beautifully crafted, layered, and underplayed to great effect. The supporting performances by Bob Monkehouse (also a comedian doing a very nice dramatic turn), Phyllida Law, and Jessica Turner as Hopkins’ wife Jane are also nicely crafted.
It’s great to see that Laurie’s success with House, MD has encouraged the producers of his previous work (ITV with this 2-DVD set, BBC with A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and the forthcoming DVD issue of the 2002 UK series Fortysomething, which will be available this spring) to make them available to us now.
The two-DVD set has little in the way of extras: only cast bios. All or Nothing at All, distributed by BFS Entertainment is available November 27. You may view a trailer of the DVD at the BFS website.