About mid-way through Mike Leigh’s 1990 breakthrough feature Life is Sweet (recently re-released on DVD by the Criterion Collection) the viewer may stop and wonder what kind of movie they are watching: a bittersweet comedy of life, with elements of the burlesque, or a drab slice of kitchen sink realism, in the vein of John Cassavetes? This sense of confusion, caused by Leigh’s rare ability to balance between extremes, is usually an indicator that he is in top form.
Mike Leigh is something of a wonder. Viewed from this side of the pond his body of filmmaking is remarkably consistent, vibrating with vitality, with breathing, lived-in characters whose penchant for train-wreck existences are only matched by their Teflon-like determination to survive in the modern-day urban environment. Though this venerable veteran of the stage, BBC teleplays, and feature film-making has achieved knighthood in his native land his contributions to British film would be better approximated—if it existed—by a distinction similar to Japan’s “living treasure” (Ken Loach is right there with him in this regard).
As its title suggests Life Is Sweet belies the austerity typical to socially conscious-filmmaking, its storyline—about a working-class family living on the outskirts of London and their orbit of friends and acquaintances—at times as light as it can be dense, often meandering like a gently-bubbling stream.
Andy (Leigh regular Jim Broadbent) is a chef whose position in a large and anonymous industrial-sized kitchen causes him to dream of the freedom he would be afforded by purchasing a snack cart that he could run on the weekends. His wife Wendy (Leigh’s then-wife Alison Steadman) helps make ends meet by working various jobs, such as a dance instructor and a sales associate in a children’s clothing store, her demeanor sociable and sprightly even in the face of adversity. Their twin daughters in their early-20s are as different from one another as they can possibly be. Natalie (Claire Skinner) is bookish and reserved, a conscientious worker, while Nicola (Ab Fab’s Jane Horrocks) carries a heavy chip on her shoulder, her seething anger at the world so complete that she seemingly wears a permanent scowl upon her face. Patsy (Stephen Rea) is a wheeler-dealer of sorts, an old chum of Andy’s; the two of them seem to melt over their beers at the local pub, giving themselves over to boozy and wistful reminiscences of the glory days of Tottenham Hotspur. Aubrey (another Leigh regular, Timothy Spall) is an overgrown man-child and aspiring restaurateur. The disastrous opening night of his The Regret Rien—a gaudy and grotesque evocation of the cuisine and culture of Paris and the music of Edith Piaf—provides the film with its most memorable and hilarious set-piece. His sous-chef Paula’s (Moya Brady) angular face is as doleful is it is doe-eyed, as she struggles to suppress wonderment and affection for her seemingly-acculturated new boss, while Nicola’s secret lover is played by a young David Thewlis, who would find his career-defining role just a few years later in Leigh’s NAKED.
Holding together this group of dreamers, losers, upstarts, and also-rans is Leigh’s compassionate sensibility: his humane, forgiving nature allows ample room for even the most hopeless of characters to work their way toward some form of resolution. Rachel Portman’s lively and unflagging chanson-influenced score, featuring oboe, accordion, and Theremin, steadily chugs throughout the movie, lightening the heavy emotional load just enough that it becomes bearable: it is the kind of airy tune that, once lodged in your head, hums along at an agreeable pace. Director of photography Dick Pope’s work is exceptional here, lensing the bleak working-class environs with a warm palette which permits traces of humanity to seep in at the edges. Singling out superior performances among this uniformly excellent cast is a difficult task but both Steadman and Horrocks are particularly deserving of praise for their strong portrayals.
This movie was an early indicator of Leigh’s mature sensibility, balancing unvarnished hardships with characters who learn to survive the slings and arrows of life, often with a giggle and a laugh. The complex and beautifully-composed opening shot of this film is perfectly indicative in this regard: Through a darkly lit foreground and a set of doors we glimpse a brightly-lit dance studio where Wendy leads a group of hesitant young girls to an upbeat bit of pop music cheerily thumping in the background. The sounds of vitality are distant, but unmistakable, as Wendy delivers sing-song encouragement and the group shyly begins to sway from side-to-side: life is (bitter) sweet, indeed!
Many of the other works by this distinguished filmmaker—Naked, the Gilbert and Sullivan biopic TOPSY-TURVY, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, CAREER GIRLS, ALL OR NOTHING, VERA DRAKE, ANOTHER YEAR and SECRETS & LIES—are available for rental in our Mike Leigh section.