By Chaz Lipp
Before checking out Life is Sweet, Mike Leigh’s 1990 breakthrough film, Secrets & Lies was the only of his films I’d seen. That 1996 film received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and two nods for Leigh (as director and screenwriter). Such is the distinctiveness of Leigh’s style that I immediately recognized it, despite my very limited knowledge of his work. Life is Sweet is an ensemble piece about a dysfunctional London family. The tone strikes a sometimes uneasy balance between comedy and drama (and between realism and farce).
Honestly I came away with very mixed feelings about the film. For one thing, the characters are mostly quite annoying, even if admittedly well-played by their respective actors. Family patriarch Andy (Jim Broadbent) is an easy-going enough guy, but prone to illogical monetary and career decisions. He purchases a beat-up, old mobile “Hot Snacks” cart that he believes he can fix up. His wife, Wendy (Alison Steadman), knows all too well that the trailer will likely just occupy space on their lot. Later she cites Andy’s purchase as a sign that the middle-aged drunk is still fighting for a prosperous future. But the evidence on screen seems to suggest otherwise.
Andy and Wendy’s twin daughters are a huge part of the film. Polar opposites it would seem, on the surface at least, the twentysomething women are a focal point of the story. Nicola (Jane Horrocks) is a neurotic, bulimic, tic-driven shut-in. She doesn’t work, doesn’t like anyone, and secretly hooks up with her boyfriend (David Thewlis) for food-fetish sex when no one is home. Natalie (Claire Skinner), on the other hand, is doing considerably better, working as a plumber and enjoying a generally “normal” social life. It is saying something, however, that she still lives at home – seemingly slavishly devoted to her mother and father, disinterested in securing a romantic relationship. Nicola’s distrust of men stems from a barely referenced incident from the past (presumably of the assaultive variety), but I have to wonder what might’ve gone on in Natalie’s past as well.
Supremely creepy family friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall) rounds out the primaries, a dim-witted dolt with barely contained lustful desires for all females within his circle (including Wendy, despite the fact that Andy is his best friend). Aubrey is “still fighting” for that financially stable future as well, opening a French restaurant called Regret Rein. His menu items include such nauseating fare as “pork cyst” and “prune quiche” (for vegetarians). Though put forth as a form of broad comic relief, Aubrey is a bit too shady to be funny (his unrequited longing for Nicola makes me wonder about his past actions when the girls were much younger). His restaurant opens without the benefit of customers, due to Aubrey having not advertised at all.
Some of these folks need psychiatric counseling, especially Nicola and Aubrey. The dire state of their mental health is at odds with the rather jaunty tone of Life is Sweet. As watchable and fascinating as the film can be, I found it uncomfortable. Its subtle attempts at a feel-good ending rang false to me, as I watched a collection of people with various levels of mental problems clearly unable to truly help each other. One might think the title is meant to be ironic, given that few would describe eating disorders, social anxiety, and stalled careers as “sweet.” But I get the feeling that Leigh aims to reassure us that all is, in fact, sweet – provided there are people who love and believe in us all around. Good intentions aren’t always enough, unfortunately.
Life is Sweet has received an awesome 1080p transfer from Criterion, with bold colors and great clarity. This doesn’t look like a nearly quarter-century old film in the slightest. Rock solid work, supervised by the film’s cinematographer Dick Pope. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 sountrack is simple but effective. Luckily for those unaccustomed to strong British accents, there are English subtitles. The dialogue is all presented with crystal clear fidelity, but it can be difficult to understand at times.
Extras include a newly recorded Mike Leigh director’s commentary, an hour-long, audio-only interview with Leigh from 1991, and five short films directed by Leigh in 1975.