Life is Sweet Review

This review contains plot spoilers.

Watching a film again, particularly after some space of time, can be an interesting experience. Something you raved about at the time now seems less wonderful, or a film may have grown in stature over the years. I saw Life is Sweet on its British cinema release in early 1991. Seeing it again [in 2000 for this DVD review – GC], having watched everything Leigh has made since in between, puts it in perspective. It's still a very good film, funny and moving, and one of Leigh's most optimistic works, but in retrospect it seems a dry run for Secrets & Lies, with themes and techniques that would be developed further in that film.

Leigh says that his intent is to make films about "the unextraordinary lives of ordinary people – and making that interesting and meaningful". Life is Sweet follows an ordinary family in Greater London. Andy (Jim Broadbent) is a chef who dreams of setting up his own business. He's married to Wendy (Alison Steadman). They have twin daughters. Natalie (Claire Skinner) works as a plumber; Nicola (Jane Horrocks) is unemployed and, unknown to the rest, bulimic. This film is very much character-driven; what plot there is centres round family friend Aubrey's (Timothy Spall) disastrous attempt to open a restaurant, the Regret Rien, and how Nicola finally faces up to the mess her life is in.

Like much of his work, Life is Sweet was developed from improvisations with the cast. Leigh has been accused of caricature, certainly a fault of the earlier High Hopes. Here, some of the characters do border on caricature, but always something happens that shows them in greater depth. Wendy, with her annoying braying laugh, is shown to be the force that holds the family together. Andy, a man who cannot get round to fixing the front door or doing up the patio, and who is all but conned into buying a broken-down mobile snack bar, is a man who hasn't given up on his dreams. Natalie is happy to be single and to work as a plumber. Aubrey, all studied coolness masking suppressed rage, is much more two-dimensional, but even he has his moments: when no-one turns up to his restaurant, he gets blind drunk and clumsily propositions Wendy before passing out on the floor. Nicola is quite believable as a pain in the neck to all around her, spouting feminist rhetoric she clearly only half understands, and inviting her boyfriend (a very young-looking David Thewlis) for loveless afternoon sex sessions – in a blackly funny scene, he ties her to the bed and licks chocolate off her. But we find out that some trauma (not specified, but there's a hint it was rape) sent her life into a tailspin. At the film's climax, her mother breaks through her self-loathing in a scene that's quite heart-rending and brilliantly acted by Steadman and Horrocks. That's not to disparage the rest of the cast, all of whom are excellent. That extended rehearsal and improvisation time paid off: Steadman (who was Leigh's wife at the time), Broadbent, Skinner and Horrocks are not related to each other, but you can believe in them as a family. Visually, Leigh aims for a heightened naturalism. Dick Pope's photography is sharp and clear, but doesn't draw attention to itself. Leigh uses small details of production design and costume to give further insights into his characters.

The transfer on this disc is acceptable, with occasional dust spots and artefacts. (The DVD struggles with polka dots and thin stripes in a brief scene in the clothes shop where Wendy works.) It's letterboxed to 1.66:1, but as the film is composed for 1.75:1 I don't know why the transfer couldn't have been anamorphic like the simultaneously-released discs of Secrets & Lies and Career Girls.

The soundtrack is surround-encoded, but the rear channels tend be used only for Rachel Portman's sparse score. The sound mix emphasises the dialogue, which is entirely clear. That may not apply if you're hard of hearing, and Americans – let alone those who speak English as a second language – may struggle with some of the estuary accents. Unfortunately for them, and as with many other VCI discs, there are no subtitles. In fact, there are no extras at all, not even a trailer, though you can't complain too much for £9.99. The disc is encoded for Region 2 only.

There are seventeen chapter stops, just about adequate for a film that lasts an hour and a half. The packaging is distinctly uninspired, with half the sleeve notes taken up with listing other films the cast have been in. Broadbent is surely not best represented by The Avengers, and Topsy-Turvy is misspelled.

Life is Sweet is essential for Leigh fans, and a good introduction to his work for the uninitiated. At the price, it’s a bargain, though an anamorphic transfer and subtitles would have been better.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 19:34:59

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