Life is Sweet: Criterion Collection
June 10, 2013
For many years, Mike Leigh has been a brilliant and consistent chronicler of the British lower middle working class in cinema. Life is Sweet (1990) was his breakthrough film having cut his teeth previously on plays and television movies where he honed his acerbic and darkly humorous outlook on life. While predominantly a comedy, the film tackles serious subjects and provides a snapshot of the times in which it was made.
Life is Sweet is ostensibly a slice-of-life story as we follow a group of characters through a period of their lives. Andy (Broadbent) and Wendy (Steadman) live with her and their twin daughters Nicola (Horrocks) and Natalie (Skinner) in an average London suburb. Andy is the head chef of a corporate kitchen while Wendy sells baby clothes. The first thing that strikes you is how realistic the family dynamic is between these characters. It seems like Leigh has opened a window into their lives for us to observe. They bicker and squabble like dysfunctional families do. Nicola is the black sheep of the family, smoking during dinner and offering sarcastic retorts to everything. Andy’s friend Patsy (Rea) takes him to a junkyard and shows him a run-down chip truck. Andy is understandably wary about fixing it up, but he’s also tempted by its potential prospects. Meanwhile, Wendy helps out her friend Aubrey (Spall) and his newly opened French restaurant.
The cast is excellent as they make their characters colorful and distinctive. They are everyday people just trying to get by, looking out for each other as good friends and family do. If anyone is a standout it’s Jane Horrocks as Nicola. She’s an angry bundle of tics as she snarls and sneers her way through life. Horrocks does a wonderful job representing the disaffected, apathetic youth of the day. Her political activism seems limited to wearing t-shirts with slogans and insulting people by calling them, “fascists” or “Tories.” However, Nicola has a real problem that she keeps from the rest of the family even though a few of them suspect something is going on and this only adds to the complexity of the character and the family dynamic.
Leigh deftly shifts from comedy to drama and back again, much like real life. There’s a John Cassavetes kind of vibe as what the characters say and how they behave feels spontaneous and real. Leigh has a real warmth and affection for his characters, showing them warts and all, but it is their faults that make them that much more endearing because we see aspects of ourselves in them. Life is Sweet was the start of a fantastic run of films for Leigh that continues to this day.
There is an audio commentary by writer/director Mike Leigh. He takes us through the film on this engaging track, pointing out visuals he likes, telling the occasional anecdote, and singling out individual cast members for praise. He also has nice things to say about the collective work of the ensemble cast. In addition, Leigh also addresses the comedic elements in the film and the serious issues that lurk underneath.
“Mike Leigh at the National Film Theatre” is a one-hour audio interview he gave on March 17, 1991. He talks about his films as “serious comedies,” specifically Life is Sweet and how the humor in it is grounded and believable.
Finally, there is “Five-Minute Films,” five short films written and directed by Leigh in 1975 for a proposed BBC T.V. series. They are a fascinating collection as we see his thematic pre-occupations in their infancy.