When I watched Mike Leigh’s “Life is Sweet” for the first time all those years ago, it didn’t particularly make a strong impression – it was well made alright, but it was also as if I knew these characters all my life – they were just, mundane. It was only after I watched the film again more recently, that I could appreciate the fact that this is precisely the reason why it is something special.
There isn’t a story to tell in the film – they’re just meticulous but affectionate observations of an average suburban working class family and acquaintances plodding through life, occasional stumble notwithstanding. Andy (Jim Broadbent), an easygoing father of two, is tired of working as a supervising chef and wants to be his own boss. His twin daughters Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks) are as different as day and night – while tomboyish Natalie is thoughtful, non-combative, and makes a living as a plumber, Nicola has an insufferably low-esteem of both herself and her body (she’s bulimic). With a permanent scowl on her face, she’s obviously insecure and unhappy. Holding the family together with resilience and fortitude is their kind-hearted mum Wendy (superbly played by Alison Steadman), a shop assistant and part-time aerobics instructor for children. She laughs through life’s tiny mishaps without nearly appearing insensitive, and nurses the flame of hope in whoever she interacts with.
Hope, like sticking up for Andy after he’d apparently being conned by dodgy friend Patsy (Stephen Rea) into buying a run-down caravan cafe. Hope, like helping another bizarre and hapless family friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall) open his restaurant after his waitress-to-be decides not to join at the last minute. Hope, like helping a desperately self-loathing Nicola to open up, and offering a shoulder to cry on, in one of the more moving conversations in film between a mother and daughter. Wendy is hope personified, because she so sweetens the lives of everyone around her.
Before my second viewing, even if I’d forgotten the outline summary, some characters remained etched in my mind, like that of Wendy, Andy, and Aubrey – they’re characters I’d seen in people that I’ve known, and have continued to associate with at a subliminal level. Ordinary folks all, like me. But it takes a great director to make the mundane and unremarkable into something memorable and heroic. Mike Leigh is the Wendy, poking fun at our ways affectionately – our little pitfalls, our occasional triumphs, and reminding us that life isn’t too bleak, after all. This is a work of a genius – a hidden gem worth discovering. Highly Recommended Viewing..!
The Nudity: Jane Horrocks
There’s only a single scene with nudity, from a young Jane Horrocks who plays Nicola, the twin with the most issues. She makes us feel for her character through all her bitching and self-loathing. In this rather funny scene, you have Nicola demanding her lover (David Thewlis) participate in a game that he’d already grown rather tired of, involving chocolate spread. Sweet tooth, anyone..? 🙂