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Mike Leigh's tales of ordinary London folks getting along as best they can re-invigorated English filmmaking in the 1990s. Coming from a strong background in theater, Leigh divided his time between the stage and dramas for the BBC. His stories might be classified along the lines of the old 'kitchen sink' school of social realism, except that the Angry Young Men are more disturbed than angry, and that heavy social messages are conspicuously absent. His films chart the progress of people trying to live their lives, for better or for worse. Leigh's characters are often unforgettable, and his elaborate rehearsal techniques with his carefully chosen actors result in seamless performances that blend with their own personalities. Although some of Leigh's pictures deal with painful situations he always respects and embraces his characters. 2002's All or Nothing revolves around a trio of supermarket cashiers, whose families must deal with problems like obesity and alcoholism. 1993's Naked is about a troublemaking drifter that soon proves his incompatibility with others. Leigh also directed the witty tribute to Gilbert & Sullivan Topsy-Turvy, an atypical but wonderful addition to his filmography.
Life Is Sweet is remembered as the first theatrical film of Mike Leigh to reach an international audience. It features remarkable performances from Alison Steadman (Leigh's wife at the time), Jim Broadbent, Jane Horrocks (of TV's Absolutely Fabulous), Claire Skinner, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis and Stephen Rea. Some of the secrets uncovered are disturbing, but the film builds a strong sense of affection for these very lovable people.
The relaxed storyline covers some events in the life of a lower-middle class London family that at first seems an absolute disaster. Wendy (Alison Steadman) works hard at two jobs, maintains an amazingly upbeat attitude and loves double-entendre humor. She both dearly loves and indulges her husband Andy (Jim Broadbent), who can't seem to get his ambitions in focus. Andy feels unfulfilled in his job as a supervising chef in a large catering outfit. With a dozen unfinished projects already disrupting his household, he buys a dilapidated fast-food van from his shady friend Patsy (Stephen Rea), with the idea of making big money. Wendy and Andy's twin daughters are young adults that live at home. Natalie (Claire Skinner) works as an apprentice plumber and insists on wearing male clothing at all times. She has an agreeable attitude, once one understands that she never smiles. Her sister Nicola (Jane Horrocks) is always in a foul mood, criticizing everything that is said or done in the family. She rarely goes out. Wendy worries about Nicola but only Natalie knows her sister's secret -- she stuffs herself with chocolate in the middle of the night, and then vomits it all out, violently. Nicola also sneaks her boyfriend (David Thewlis of Naked) into the house to make love, and repels him with her kinky demands. While Andy putters around with his van, his initiative on the project fading, Wendy is drawn into helping their somewhat maladjusted friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall) launch his grammatically inapt restaurant The Regret Rien. An excitable fantasist perversely dedicated to failure, Aubrey concocts for his bistro a cluttered interior design and a grotesque bill of fare. Rejecting advice, he opens without advertising or even a printed menu. His opening night turns into a drunken disaster. Wendy returns to find Andy passed out from drink as well, and reaches the limit of her temper. But when she seizes an opportunity to speak directly to Nicola about life and reality, we see evidence of the warmth and care that holds Wendy's clan together.
Life Is Sweet bears comparison with Mike Leigh's recent Happy-Go-Lucky in that both center on strong women that face down life's problems with a seemingly unending reserve of optimism. Alison Steadman's Wendy is even shown teaching small children to dance. She's a prime example of the positive human factor that makes Leigh's otherwise grim stories so appealing. Wendy's constant cheery attitude and fondness for naughty jokes don't mean that she isn't sensitive to what's going on in her family. She knows that her husband's dithering has left the house a disaster area, that Natalie is taking a different path and Nicola seems intent on being miserable. But she's coping as best she can. Wendy's gentle optimism makes a difference, and so do her sudden bursts of fury when the frustration becomes too much.
Natalie's social life consists of hanging out at the pool hall yet she doesn't feel maladjusted or consider herself less feminine. And she's very interested in planning a trip to the United States. Wendy does seem tolerant to a fault when she puts up with the shady Patsy (we're never certain that the food van is his to sell) and the clearly deluded Aubrey, who talks her into serving as a waitress and then tries to hit on her in the wreckage of his stillborn restaurant. The only thing that keeps Aubrey from being criminally repulsive is the devotion of his mopey cook-helper, Paula (Moya Brady).
The film's reveal of extra dimensions to the characters is too pleasurable to spoil. It's amusing to see the calm, thoughtful Natalie contend with her sister's overstated disgust with everything and everybody. Nicola screws her mouth up into a hateful scowl so frequently that we fear that it might become permanent. Leigh refuses to categorically resolve every issue in sight -- real human problems are always a work in progress -- yet he affords us some very welcome scenes of emotional contact.
Leigh's excellent direction soon has us forgetting the presence of the camera, as we always seem to be looking at the interesting part of any given scene. When the family is eating together in their tiny living room, Nicola's insists on staying in the kitchen, firing acid comments at a conversation she seemingly wants to avoid. Father Andy seems detached and slightly foggy about what's going on around him but relates so well to Wendy that we can see how right it is for them to be together. Wendy's half-concerned, half-amused reaction to a later medical emergency comes off as correct only because the characters are so well established. Director Leigh has us in his pocket when he isolates the sisters on the back steps, and Natalie tries to get Nicola to open up about her secret problem. Life Is Sweet captures our hearts without asking us to idealize the family situation.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Life Is Sweet is a beautiful and flawless widescreen presentation of this highly entertaining show. The transfer was supervised by Leigh's cinematographer, Dick Pope.
Director Leigh provides an entertaining new audio commentary and is heard in an audio interview from 1991. Especially interesting are a series of five amusing short films Leigh directed as a pilot for a TV show called Five-Minute Films. The whole point was for Leigh to create a special little film world, where characters from one short might show up in another. The TV producers approved the format, but when they added the clueless proviso that 'guest directors' make short films as well, Leigh dropped the whole idea. Critic David Sterritt contributes an essay for an insert booklet. Criterion's disc producer is Kate Elmore.
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Life Is Sweet Blu-ray rates:
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