Life is Sweet

(Mike Leigh, UK, 1991)


British director Mike Leigh can hardly be accused of a lack of sociological curiosity. His semi-improvised films (Meantime [1983], High Hopes [1988]) are often marvellously broad in their comedy, but always spot-on in their observation of a representative range of social types. Yuppies, losers, con artists, dreamers, bureaucrats, battlers, immigrants, teenagers – all are vividly, unforgettably etched in the director's Life Is Sweet.

The title is, of course, ironic. Leigh's films are usually about the interminable drabness of working-class life under a cloud of economic depression. Humiliation and defeat lurk around every corner. Yet, by summoning all their resources of humour, courage, frustration and plain looniness, Leigh's ordinary heroes somehow manage to keep struggling with their hopeless lot.

But these people have personal dreams great and small, and they kick back in any way they can at the system that oppresses them. So in Life Is Sweet there's Andy (Jim Broadbent), a family man stuck in a boring job who lashes out and buys a broken-down fast-food van; Aubrey (Timothy Spall), an eternal boy who unwisely opens a 'classy' restaurant, the Regret Rien; and Nicola (Jane Horrocks), one of Andy's twin teenage daughters, a closet anorexic who each night stuffs herself with chocolate and then wretches into a plastic bag .

These characters (only a few from the brilliant ensemble cast) do not get drawn together in a neat plot. Leigh's narratives are deliberately ragged; threads appear and disappear at whim so that we can observe a maximum number of everyday situations. People slog away at work, get drunk at the pub, and go crazy trying to fill in their free time. And no film captures better the thousand and one finicky interactions of family life.

Life Is Sweet has a hard, cynical edge. The characters are viewed with both cruel irony and tender compassion. These British citizens are trapped by their society in ways that Michael Apted could never begin to contemplate in his 7 Up series. Yet Leigh simultaneously allows his characters a greater margin for resistance, improvisation and change. Each of them somehow breaks the mould of their social type, emerging as a nuttily resilient individual.

The film is not without its faults. The manic comedy is occasionally repetitious and a touch too burlesque. And, for a politically conscious filmmaker, Leigh is surprisingly ready to dismiss Nicola's anorexia as a simple case of cowardly immaturity. But overall, Life Is Sweet is a summit of Leigh's career.

MORE Leigh: All or Nothing, Career Girls, Naked, Happy-Go-Lucky, Secrets & Lies, Peterloo

© Adrian Martin August 1991/July 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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