Life is Sweet Review
Mike Leigh’s third feature, released in 1990, serves up a bittersweet slice of everyday family life. The film centres around optimistic chef Andy (Jim Broadbent), his perpetually chirpy wife Wendy (Alison Steadman), plus their twenty-something twin daughters Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks) who all live together in a Greater London suburb. Wendy can’t resist an innuendo, has a raucous laugh, but her love binds the family together. Andy is a great procrastinator, ably demonstrated by the many unfinished DIY projects around the couple’s home - including a roofless porch.
Wendy is forever supportive of her husband, yet sometimes frustrated by his actions. Her patience is put to the test when Andy’s shifty drinking mate Patsy (Stephen Rea) flogs him a shabby old burger van, to the chagrin of his family when it turns up on their front driveway. To many the decrepit caravan is only fit for the crusher, yet Andy has big plans for his latest acquisition, seeing it as an escape from the kitchen job he hates and an opportunity to branch out alone. Having ideas and ambition is a trait shared by several characters in Life is Sweet, though they don’t always manage to see their dreams through to fruition during the course of the film, it’s having some get-up-and-go that’s seen as important.
Natalie is an upbeat apprentice plumber, eagerly flicking through holiday brochures in her spare time with the intention of escaping home life - for a while at least - and touring America. In contrast, her twitchy sister Nicola is unemployed and has no direction in life, continually showing hostility towards everyone around her by spitting insults. She pretends to be politically aware, but in fact knows little about the world or is motivated enough to actually help make a difference. It's soon revealed that the painfully thin Nicola also suffers from an eating disorder, which see has tried to hide from her family, often gorging on a secret stash of sweets to the point of throwing up. Although Nicola has a boyfriend who calls round to the house (played by a youthful looking David Thewlis), he has grown bored of their relationship as she does not want anything more other than occasional afternoon sex. During these sessions Nicola often has a compulsion to be covered in chocolate spread, which he has to obligingly lick off of her.
Continuing the theme of food, we are later introduced to flamboyant family friend Aubrey (a droll turn from Timothy Spall) who plans to open his own restaurant in town, with a name inspired by an Edith Piaf song no less - the Regret Rien. As the restaurant fast approaches its grand opening night, this becomes the focus of the film. The humourless Aubrey tries desperately to be cool, but his outlandish behaviour and dress sense - including an oversized baseball cap - is more likely to evoke chuckles. The restaurant looks simply dreadful too with its grubby kitchen and gaudy décor proudly displaying plastic onions and a stuffed cats head on the wall. Aubrey’s dubious interpretation of French cuisine does not inspire confidence either, with such absurd delights on the menu as duck in chocolate sauce, liver in lager and pork cyst (apparently a medieval dish).
Even those without the culinary expertise of Gordon Ramsey can predict that Aubrey’s restaurant is destined to fail, though it's not clear at first how spectacularly it will flounder. Andy and Wendy have serious doubts too, quietly mocking Aubrey behind his back, but being a decent couple they will always assist a friend in need. So when the sole waitress quits at the eleventh hour, leaving hapless Aubrey with just his less than enthusiastic kitchen assistant Paula (a hilarious Moya Brady), Wendy dutifully steps in to help out. During the course of the night it emerges that Aubrey has a short fuse and an unbecoming lecherous streak, both towards Wendy during a drunken outburst and downtrodden Paula.
After the comedic antics in the Regret Rien, which takes up a little too much time in my opinion, the film changes gear and veers into more dramatic territory back home as Wendy confronts daughter Nicola. It is here that the seriousness of Nicola's condition is first discussed, with Wendy desperately trying to reach out to her daughter, offering support to get her life back on track. It's a powerfully moving scene that's beautifully played by Horrocks and Steadman. Towards the end, Nicola finally realises that her parents don't actually hate her after all and there's some chance of reconciliation.
Leigh is famed for his method of starting with no script and instead building characters with the actors through intense weeks of improvisation before the cameras roll. It's a technique that's served him well over the years; you can never accuse Leigh of populating his films with one dimensional characters. Life is Sweet has a wonderful ensemble with most of the parts brought vividly to life - particularly by Steadman and Broadbent. Only Spall's character of Aubrey comes across as slightly cartoonish. One of Leigh's great skills is his ability to effortlessly jerk our emotions around with one scene offbeat and humorous while the next could be deeply poignant, often tackling serious issues in the process. Life is Sweet while being a good example, doesn't quite provide the same emotional punch as the director's later work - notably his outstanding Palme d'Or winning Secrets and Lies which is still one of my favourite films of the late nineties. Having said that, this film is still a hugely enjoyable study of family relationships from an intelligent filmmaker and featuring a talented cast who have all since gone from strength to strength.
The BFI have released Life is Sweet in a dual format edition, including both DVD and Blu-ray editions. The BD is presented in the original aspect ratio of 1:85:1 with English LPCM 2.0 audio. As you might expect, it looks remarkably better than earlier DVD editions, some of which appeared on the market over 15 years ago. The picture here is bright and detailed with no noticeable issues. Similarly the sound is crisp and clear throughout without any defects. It also shows off composer Rachel Portman's very apt score to great effect.
Life is Sweet was first released on BD back in 2012 by Film4, without much in the way of extras. Criterion in the States also released the film during 2013, albeit as a region "A" locked edition. This featured a 2K transfer of the film and a different set of extras compared to the new BFI release, comprising several five minute films directed by Leigh. By comparison, the BFI release includes a 36-minute short film previously unreleased on disc along with other new extras, making it the definitive edition for the UK market.
A Running Jump (2012, Short, 36 mins) - Another Mike Leigh regular, Eddie Marsan, returns in this amusing short film produced as part of the 2012 cultural Olympiad. I loved Marsan's performance as the tightly wound driving instructor in Leigh's Happy Go Lucky (2008), so it's great to see him back collaborating with the director again. A Running Jump sees him cast as fast-talking Perry, a somewhat iffy used car salesman. He's first seen charging around the streets of London frantically trying to sell one of his clapped out old motors that are parked up around different locations. Although Perry really thinks he has the gift of the gab, only the most gullible of punters seem to fall for his sales pitch.
What has this got to do with the Olympic Games you might ask? Well, there are plenty of sport and keep fit references in nearly every scene involving other characters: Perry's twin daughters work as lifeguards at a local pool, wife Debbie (played by acclaimed actress Samantha Spiro) is a fitness instructor and his cabbie father (Sam Kelly) talks endlessly about his greatest passion: Millwall FC. It's a bright and breezy piece, peppered with quirky characters and humour that we've come to expect from Leigh. It's also shot by Leigh veteran Dick Pope and ends with an impressive aerial shot over the City.
An Interview With Jane Horrocks (2017, 14 mins) - In this new interview prepared by the BFI, the actress discusses the process involved working with Mike Leigh.
Audio Commentary with Mike Leigh (2013, 103 mins) - This commentary was recorded for the US Criterion release, hence Leigh feels the need to explain some references in the script - UK audiences on the other hand will almost certainly have heard of Tommy Cooper.
The Guardian Lecture: Mike Leigh in Conversation with Derek Malcolm (1991, 62 mins) - An archival interview with Leigh, conducted at the NFT during the 1990s, offers further insight into his way of working. It is audio only and plays over the film.
Stills Gallery (colour, black and white).
Illustrated Booklet (17 pages) - A typically impressive glossy booklet from the BFI with colour pictures throughout. It covers Life is Sweet with new writing by Ashley Clark and a contemporary review by John Pym. The short, A Running Jump, is also covered by Will Massa.