There’s a scene near the end of Life Is Sweet that’s as rich and heartbreaking as any in director Mike Leigh’s long career. It starts with Nicola (Jane Horrocks), a young woman in her early 20s, having an argument with her mother, Wendy (Alison Steadman). We’ve already seen many similar disputes between this pair throughout the film, and we’re naturally led to assume that this one will follow a similar pattern. Nicola—cynical, petulant, in love with the dream of being a progressive anarchist while discarding any of its attendant realities—has said something predictably snide and Wendy responds with an equally predictable attempt to correct her. But this argument, with a suddenness that’s reflective of quarrels we have with loved ones in real life, takes a revealing turn, and Nicola and Wendy find themselves directly confronting their submerged misgivings with one another, which have significantly informed the tense irresolution of the film thus far.
We already know that Nicola is ripe for potential disaster. Bulimic, unemployed, antisocial, with a variety of physical ticks that occasionally appear to be nearly incapacitating, she does little apart from stewing over the world’s injustices from the comfort of her room in her parent’s home. For a while, the character is played for laughs that stick in your throat, but Horrocks and Leigh gradually reveal that Nicola’s petty tirades mask a profound hopelessness and self-loathing. And Wendy, as mothers are wont to do, may have grown too accustomed to Nicola’s irritations to read them as the cry for help they are. Until the pivotal moment when Wendy pushes herself to reach out, and her daughter, miraculously (and briefly) lets her in.
A variation of this scene exists in all of Leigh’s films, as they’re all, to varying degrees, serio-comic testaments to the challenges of extending empathy to others. His films often introduce characters as fabulously vivid clowns, only to eventually show, in a tonal loop-de-loop, the fear and desperation that drives their acts of buffoonery. Critics who accuse Leigh of mean-spiritedness are missing the point: The filmmaker draws us into the ways his characters judge one another, and follows them as they come upon situations that shake them out of their trite misconceptions.
Wendy and Nicola’s relationship is one of several narratives that quietly drive Life Is Sweet, but it’s the emotional heart of the film—and every other key moment seems to be guiding us toward this eventual mother/daughter catharsis. There’s another huge remarkable scene, an actors’ tour de force, and it serves to shake Wendy out of her domestic stasis. A longtime family friend, Aubrey (Timothy Spall), opens an absurd French restaurant nearby (in London), and Wendy has agreed to help him on opening night. No customers show, and Aubrey gets flamboyantly drunk, passing out and wrecking his dining room after pathetically attempting to bed Wendy.
These sorts of emotional time-bombs, and the shock with which they detonate, are one of Leigh’s specialties. It’s understandable that the director often chafes at reviews essentially characterizing his films as “kitchen-sink dramas” or “slices of life,” as he’s actually a shrewd stylist, as well as a superb architect of narrative structure. Most everything that happens in Life Is Sweet is carefully prepared for in a fleet, amusing serious of exchanges over a family lunch at the beginning of the film, but the subtlety and depth of the actors’ performances, as well as the filmmaker’s exacting sense of when and how to cut among them, vividly establish the illusion of spontaneity.
Life Is Sweet is the film that gained Leigh global esteem as a major filmmaker, and it’s still one of his best—a tough, compassionate study of a British family near the end of the Thatcher regime. The title is a testament to the nuance and ambiguity of Leigh’s methods, as it’s offered neither in jest nor celebration, but as a statement of hard-won fact that abounds in heartbreaks and mysteries.
Approved by writer-director Mike Leigh, this transfer boasts an image with outstanding detail. Grain levels are appropriate, and the colors are lively and inviting throughout. The truly revelatory aspect of the image though is the depth of field, which calls welcome attention to the deceptive precision of Leigh’s framing and shooting (note, in particular, the landscape shots of the junkyard). The 2.0 DTS-HD track is crisp and vibrant.
The dryly funny and informative new audio commentary by Leigh is a must-listen for any cinephile or devoted fan of the director’s work. The filmmaker guides us through his famously rigorous process of creating his films, which includes months of elaborately structured improvisations with his cast. Character subtext is discussed at length, as well as Leigh’s shot preferences, which includes framing within doors as way of emphasizing the intense microcosmic nature of the family unit. Leigh also isn’t too shy about occasionally addressing what he sees as critical misreadings of his work. The 1991 interview with Leigh at the National Film Theater in London covers similar ground, but allows one to observe, to an extent, how the director’s views have evolved in the two intervening decades. Some rarely available short films have also been included, as well as a persuasive essay by critic David Sterritt.
Criterion welcomes this early Mike Leigh masterpiece into the fold of contemporary classics with a stunning image and outstanding audio commentary. Life is, well, you know.