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A vivid, lived-in story of ordinary existence.
Facts of the Case
Life is Sweet tells the story of an ordinary British family just trying to get by. Andy (Jim Broadbent, Topsy-Turvy) is a genial fellow who has just spent a sizable chunk of his savings on a beaten-up food truck. His wife Wendy (Alison Steadman, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) is an elementary school teacher who finds humor in nearly every situation. They have two daughters: the polite, studious Natalie (Claire Skinner, Naked) and the unkempt, irritable Nicola (Jane Horrocks, Absolutely Fabulous). Lately, dim-witted family friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall, Secrets and Lies) has been hanging around and talking excitedly about his new restaurant. Over the course of 103 minutes, the film takes a closer look at these people and what makes them tick.
Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet is, on the surface, a remarkably simple film. It doesn't have a clever premise or a conventional plot; it's just a movie devoted to carefully observing a handful of ordinary individuals. Even so, those individuals are so beautifully realized that the film doesn't need to be anything more than it is. To watch a Mike Leigh film is to realize just how shallow most movie characters really are—pawns working at the service of a plot. Alternately, I could have watched Andy, Wendy, Natalie and Nicola go about their daily business for hours on end. They feel so amusingly, heartbreakingly real in every single way. We only spend 103 minutes with them, but by the conclusion we feel as if we know them so well.
I found myself grinning from ear to ear at the countless little details Leigh includes. In one scene, Andy is preparing to go to work. He's in a bit of a hurry, and he chats with his wife while he's putting on his tie. He does a rather poor job of dressing himself, with the thin end of the tie hanging just a couple of inches lower than the wide end. He doesn't seem bothered by this, and his wife makes an offhand comment on how nice he looks. In another scene, Andy's friend Patsy (Stephen Rea, The Crying Game) drops by the house. We're never explicitly told that Patsy is a shifty guy who's always getting himself into trouble, but the manner in which he's constantly glancing over his shoulder and speaking in hushed tones tells us all we need to know about him.
Sometimes the details are much larger and more dramatic, such as when Aubrey is revealed to be a manic virtuoso on the drums or when we learn that one character has a fondness for strange lovemaking sessions that involve bondage and chocolate spread. Every now and then, the movie tosses something a bit more dramatic and startling into the mix, but these always feel like moments that are intended to deepen our understanding of the characters rather than cheap attempts to juice things up. By the time the film enters its final half-hour, it's taken on some darker undertones; permitting us to see far beneath the surface of these people. Even so, Life is Sweet's title isn't meant to be ironic: at its core, this is an exquisitely tender movie that permits its characters to find some measure of happiness in the midst of challenging circumstances. By the conclusion of the film, it could be argued that the characters are a bit worse off than they were at the beginning in conventional ways. Even so, there's no denying that the film finishes on a note of great warmth. This is a movie that understands the things that are truly important in life.
Leigh's actors are nothing short of perfect. Broadbent is so lovely as Andy; all-too-eagerly falling for Patsy's suspect "financial opportunities" and tossing goofy little jokes non-stop. He shares wonderful chemistry with Steadman, and there are few things more charming than seeing them crack each other up as their daughters roll their eyes in the background. Spall is funny, loopy and occasionally a little frightening as the dense Aubrey, whose larger-than-life appearance (he's constantly wearing a ridiculous-looking cap and a San Francisco Giants jacket) matches his impossible ambitions. However, the finest performance comes from Jane Horrocks, who has developed an intentionally abrasive personality in an attempt to prevent anyone from examining her too closely. Her tangled hair, scratchy voice and surly attitude have a way of keeping people at a distance, and that's just how she wants it. Horrocks steals nearly every scene she appears in and completely disappears in the role; it's hard to believe that this is the meek title character from Little Voice.
Life is Sweet: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray) doesn't exactly feature a stunning transfer, but this is likely as good as the film is ever going to look considering its small budget. It's a strong, faithful representation of the original image, offering strong detail, bright colors, natural flesh tones and impressive depth. There's a pleasant, moderate level of grain throughout. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio track gets the job done nicely, offering the dialogue with clarity and treating Rachel Portman's melancholy score (which is a little on the repetitive side, to be honest) quite well. Supplements include a handful of short films directed by Leigh that were broadcast on the BBC in 1975, an hour-long Q&A session with Leigh at the National Film Theatre, a commentary featuring Leigh and a booklet featuring an essay by David Sterritt. While it would have been nice to hear something from the actors, everything included is well worth checking out.
Life is Sweet is yet another great Mike Leigh film given a top-notch Criterion release. Highly recommended.
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