Life is Sweet was the first Leigh film I saw, about 6 years ago. I recently settled to reacquaint myself with Leigh's regular team of character actors. I've seen all his films subsequently and have a feel of his breadth of work, from tragicomedy to drama.
As such, I found the characters' mannerisms and foibles to be grating and really quite irritating, as if they'd been overacted, or misjudged. At least, at first.
Then, as with any family that open their front door to you and until you see and hear how they click and survive as a family unit, you really do wonder what you've let yourself in for.
So, having 'moved in', within 15 minutes I was warming to them. Ten more and I felt I knew them and was totally immersed in their humour and lives. I'm still surprised as to how political and social statements from the late '80's (as well as a trip down memory lane; rusty Ford Escorts and shell suits) manifest themselves through the cast. Bit like the kitchen sink dramas of the '60's but without the grainy black & white, the grime and grouchy men hitting womenfolk. Leigh's canvas is much wider and behind everyday doors in everyday streets lie the often dismissed emotional and confused pains of modern life. Ordinary people whose problems seem to be teetering on the edge and to them, unique.
The acting in those more poignant scenes is, as I sometimes describe, natural, as is. As you'd expect a real person to do.
With some broad humour, wit and a brisk pace this is still a sparkling snapshot of British semi-suburbia twenty years ago. Nothing too shocking or gratuitous. Not the red-hot, pure grit of hard unemployment of Shane Meadows but the sort of folk we know about, or of, who work alongside us, holding the country together. Somehow.
Not too long ago, I watched "Another Year." and I liked it a bit better than "Life is Sweet," though that might just be because the characters in "Another Year" are closer to my age. On its own terms, "Life is Sweet" is an absorbing movie. Watching a Mike Leigh movie is a bit like reading Chekov or Alice Munro -- the aim of the artist is to reveal, and he or she is more interested in getting out what is to be revealed than in making the story fit a kind of preconceived plot-structure. As a result, the "shape" of the narrative is less obvious, and often is centered on parallels and contrasts between characters, situations, and images. In this case, food is a trope that different characters are engaged with in different ways, and the revelations about the characters are mediated, so to speak, through their engagements with food. If you don't like this kind of thematic patterning in lieu of plot, you might complain that the story or movie seems to just stop rather than end, but by that time we should know whatever it is the moviemaker or writer wants us to see about the characters. And so it is here -- by the end, no problems are solved. Andy (Jim Broadbent) still has the dilapidated fast-food van (and, with a broken leg, what is he going to do with it?), his daughter Nicola (Jane Horrocks) has not been cured of her bulimia, his friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall) has destroyed the interior of his French restaurant after a disappointing opening day, during which Andy's wife, Wendy (Alison Steadman) has been prepared to act as a waitress . . . but we have seen the characters interacting, and we have a sense of their distinctiveness and also a sense of their tenacity.
This is Margaret Thatcher's Britain (c. 1990), and Wendy and Andy both work. They married in their late teens, had twin girls, and are now around 40 and obviously wondering what lies in store for them. Andy, who works as a chef in a corporate kitchen (and seems to be a person of authority there) buys the van from a dodgy friend (Stephen Rea) with no very clear idea of what he might do with it. He seems vaguely to think that it might be a way of his becoming independent or of connecting more directly with the people who would eat his food, and of course it occurs to him that it might supplement his income (though the question of what it would cost to make the van serviceable doesn't seem to enter his mind). He doesn't seem interested in working in his house or yard, but he isn't lazy -- he does his job and seems to do it well, even though it isn't all that satisfying. Wendy, who works in a children's clothing store and seems to run an exercise class for kids, teases Andy pretty mildly about his hankering for more than he currently has, just as she doesn't shoot down in flames Aubrey's very odd ideas about a French restaurant. Nor does she come down hard on her bulimic daughter -- in fact, she rather surprisingly, for most of the movie, leaves her to her own devices, without being indifferent or unkind. She herself perhaps at some level would like to have another child, since he surrounds herself outside the home with children's lives. If that's the case, her treatment of her grown children as independent adults -- although they both live at home -- is the more remarkable.
So whatever Wendy is, she is not an enabler, and the movie isn't a study in co-dependency. She obviously cares for her family and friends, but she doesn't spend all her time catering to them. She tries to help Aubrey out of the goodness of her heart because she seems to sense what his effort to open a restaurant means to him. At the same time, she knows a disaster when she sees one and can walk away from it. It would be truer to say that she is willing to let people go as far as they can in pursuit of whatever dreams and aspirations they might have. Her ribbing of Andy about his van is pretty gentle, and the bulimic Nicola, for much of the movie, is permitted to play the role she has cast herself in, as a politically engaged, hard-edged critic of the world around her. Only when that role can't be sustained and Nicola has an emotional collapse does Wendy step in and tell her daughter the truth -- that she wears t-shirts with slogans and mouths off about the state of things but never actually DOES anything. In fact, we never see Nicola leave the house at all. The remarkable thing about this scene is that Wendy is telling Nicola what she (Nicola) knows about herself and doing so in a way that reveals that Nicola's behavior has not alienated her family from her. Wendy reminds Nicola -- and late in the movie we hear this for the first time -- that the family had to take her to hospital in a bulimic coma and that she nearly died. What we, the audience, realize when we hear that is that nonetheless Wendy and Andy have given Nicola her space -- they have treated her as they would treat a normal person and not hovered over her anxiously. In a Hollywood version of this story, there would be hugs all round and general affirmation. Not so here -- it's gentler, but it's matter-of-fact. Wendy isn't at all selfish, but she doesn't let Nicola's needs and vulnerabilities, or anybody else's, define who she is.
Shortly before Wendy's truth-telling scene with Nicola, Nicola's boyfriend (David Thewlis), who visits her in the house when the rest of her family are at work and reluctantly accedes to her desire to have him lick melted chocolate from her naked chest, finally calls a halt -- he in effect challenges her to be the intelligent person that, on some level, she is. When he refuses to go upstairs for another chocolate session, she tells him to leave and goes into her emotional collapse. The boyfriend, of course, has told Nicola a truth that she knows about herself, just as her mother does a little later. And although Nicola says nothing much following her conversation with her mother, her subsequent behavior suggests that she realizes two things -- that she is being told the truth, and that, in telling the truth, people like her mother and her boyfriend are manifesting a concern for her well-being without infantilizing her. So the final scene, which follows shortly after, is the right kind of ending for this kind of movie -- Nicola is sitting in the garden with her twin sister Natalie (Claire Skinner), who is poised, controlled, and gainfully employed as a plumber, when Natalie tells her that she has heard Nicola gorging and purging in the next room: she knows what she's doing. Nicola is surprised that Natalie hasn't told her mother about this reversion to the behavior that almost killed her and asks her why she hasn't ratted her out. Natalie just says, "I think you should be the one to tell her." In other words, here is another person talking as if Nicola is in fact responsible for her own life. Natalie -- quiet, dignified, and a little bit sexually ambiguous -- doesn't seem to resent at any time the attention that the drama of Nicola's life draws to her (Nicola) -- another testimony, perhaps, to Wendy's wisdom in not making Nicola a "project."
And that's it., that quiet conversation between the sisters. Will Nicola make an effort? She's more at ease in that final scene, though not totally comfortable, but she isn't the twitchy mess we've seen earlier. That's as upbeat as it gets, consistent with the realistic portrayal of the problems up to that point. The acting throughout has been fine, but at the end, Steadman, Horrocks, Skinner, and even Thewlis do remarkable jobs in scenes that one might be tempted to chew the scenery in. To their credit, they keep us in the company of people we can believe in as real.
"Life Is Sweet" is a few days in the company of a North London family, living a seemingly simple and uncomplicated life, although not without their problems. Daughter Nicola (Jane Horrocks) is suffering from an eating disorder, and parents Andy (Jim Broadbent) and Wendy (Alison Steadman) do their best to cope with the everyday frustration of working in uninspring jobs. Despite their problems though, they are a happy family, and as a result, make for very entertaining viewing.
Typical of Mike Leigh, this is a low-key affair, but the devil is in the detail as usual. And it's the nuances of the main characters that really give this film something extra. The cast is brilliant, especially Horrocks and Broadbent. Andy's happy-go-lucky antics are perfectly offset against the angst-ridden and depressed Nicola, but ultimately their family bond is strong. The supporting cast is also excellent. Stephen Rea in a rare humourous role plays Andy's drunken mate Patsy, but stock Mike Leigh actor Timothy Spall steals the show with the ridiculous Aubrey, an 'entrepenuer' who is trying to open a restaurant, but is never likely to succeed.
The dialogue is natural and unforced, and you really get the feeling that the characters are real. It's a simple film, and doesn't try to be something that it's not. Unaffected and charming, and ultimately hopeful, this is a rare type of film whose subject matter is simple family life, warts and all. But with a brilliant cast and some absolutely hilarious moments and lines, "Life Is Sweet" is a joy to watch.
The DVD spares little (infact nothing) in the way of extras unfortunately, but it looks and sounds so much better on DVD than VHS anyway, that its certainly worth having in this format.
Mike Leigh's 1990 film Life Is Sweet is a brilliantly funny take on the life of an apparently dysfunctional working-class North London family, and provides a typically honest portrayal of the frictions and hang-ups experienced therein. Whilst the film is not quite as cuttingly cynical as Leigh's works Naked and Meantime, or apparently dealing with wider social issues such as those addressed in Vera Drake or Secrets and Lies, it is nevertheless another important work from this master film-maker.
Indeed, given the title and the atypically upbeat start to the film where mother Wendy (the brilliant Alison Steadman) is seen conducting a childrens' dance class to an up-tempo disco beat, one might be forgiven for thinking that Leigh has mellowed and decided to provide us with an out-and-out comedy. The scene switch to the family's house accompanied by Rachel Portman's brilliantly melancholic musical theme soon puts paid to any such notion. Wendy and husband Andy (the inestimable Jim Broadbent) are, however, a happily (dare I say, typically?) married couple, she working in a children's clothes shop and he a senior chef, struggling to raise their two daughters - one, Natalie (played in an early film performance by Claire Skinner), a tom-boy, training to be a plumber, and the other Nicola (another brilliant, if at times overly mannered, performance by Jane Horrocks) a would-be militant feminist, who is also suffering from bulimia. And that, in a nutshell, are the key elements of the entire film. Leigh's brilliant writing and direction could have focused solely on these four characters, and this, of itself, would have made a brilliantly entertaining, insightful and engaging film, based on what are four outstanding acting performances.
Leigh, though, widens his tapestry to include other memorable characters. None more so than Stephen Rea playing Andy's mate and waster, Patsy, who encourages Andy to gamble, and also rips him off in the purchase of a dilapidated caravan which Andy intends to use as a hot food stall. Timothy Spall appears as the eccentric family friend and restaurateur Aubrey, whose newly opening eatery is to feature dishes such as tripe soufflé and tongue in a rhubarb hollandaise sauce (seemingly predating Heston Blumenthal by a number of years). Nathalie's long-suffering boyfriend is brilliantly played in typically scathing fashion by David Thewlis, a role which can be seen as foreshadowing his more extensive role three years later in Leigh's film Naked.
The film is a series of brilliantly funny and, at times, tragic plot twists and scenes, and Leigh demonstrates, particularly through the performances of his four main protagonists, how his filmic techniques are able to get right to the heart of the familial relationships depicted. The denouement scene towards the end of the film between Wendy and Natalie is as powerful a scene as any in a Leigh film. Alison Steadman's ability to move from such a heart-rending moment to the following scene where she learns of Andy's (comic) accident at work (tripping over a spoon) should always bring a smile to any true film-lovers face.
A magical film which stands many repeat viewings.