Life Is Sweet: Life Is Bittersweet

On Film / Essays — May 28, 2013

Life Is Sweet was a breakthrough film for Mike Leigh, probably the most gifted writer-director in contemporary British cinema. Prior to its release in 1990, he had been a prolific director of plays and television movies, bring­ing acerbic wit and fierce political insights to biting comedies about characters as different as the middle-class twits of Abigail’s Party (1977) and the underclass louts of Meantime (1984). Life Is Sweet was his third theatrical feature, following the melancholy romance Bleak Moments (1971) and the working-class dramedy High Hopes (1988), and after eleven years of Margaret Thatcher’s right-wing reign, he felt more passionately than ever about the unemployment, homelessness, and general despair that were weighing down British life. The political side of him—part socialist and part anarchist, by his own account—wondered if society would ever be able to reorganize itself. In the high-spirited High Hopes, he had skewered the pieties of nostalgic socialists and self-satisfied capitalists alike; in Life Is Sweet, he integrated knockabout comedy, sardonic dialogue, and nuanced sociological observation into his most sophisticated achievement yet.

Its excellence was matched by its enthusiastic reception, first at the influential London and Toronto film festivals, then across Europe and the United States, propelled by inter­national prizes and excited reviews. Life Is Sweet confirmed Leigh as a world-class filmmaker, brought his innovative cinema to the widest audience he’d yet enjoyed, and launched the major phase of a career that still continues at full throttle. Seen today, this exuberantly funny film about desperately serious subjects is an undiminished delight, and its razor-sharp satire of consumer culture, political sloganeering, and family-values clichés as timely as ever.

True to its title, the film revolves largely around food—all sorts of food, from the plain and tasty to the exotic and inedible. There’s an equally wide array of places where food is prepared and eaten: a homely dining room table, a ramshackle fast-food van, a gleaming industrial kitchen, and a brand-new French restaurant called the Regret Rien, promising “tres exclusive” fare that proves as unappetizing as the bad French on its sign. There’s also the disordered bedroom where a twentysomething bulimic named Nicola (Jane Horrocks) keeps a secret stash of candy bars and chocolates. Frazzled, complicated, and miserable, she’s a reminder that, for the lower middle class in Thatcher’s England, life often is the opposite of sweet.

Nicola and her twin sister, Natalie (Claire Skinner), who works in the plumbing trade, are the daughters of Andy (Jim Broadbent), the head chef in a sleek corporate kitchen, and Wendy (Alison Steadman), who sells baby clothes and supervises a playgroup when she isn’t busy around the house or refereeing a family squabble. Each has the kind of vivid, idiosyncratic personality that has become a hallmark of Leigh’s movies. Wendy is mature, good-natured, and generous enough to help her entrepreneurial friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall) when the grand opening of the Regret Rien becomes the gastronomic version of a train wreck. Andy is gentle, lovable, efficient on the job, but prone to silly little slipups—physical ones, as when he slips on a spoon and breaks his leg, and economic ones, as when he buys a run-down snack wagon from his drinking buddy Patsy (Stephen Rea) on the questionable theory that he can spruce it up and earn some extra cash.

Most riveting of all is Nicola, troubled and troubling from the moment we meet her. She thinks of herself as a left-wing radical, but her activism is limited to wearing T-shirts (“Bollocks to the Poll Tax”) and spitting insults (“Racist!” “Capitalist!”) at anyone who ticks her off. What she mostly does is smoke, scowl, and snarl, refusing to eat with the family—or eat period—and twitching, twitching, twitching with anxieties that gnaw at her every hour of the day. She scoffs at Natalie for not having a boyfriend, yet when her own bloke (David Thewlis) comes to call, her insistence on weird sex—he has to tie her up and lick chocolate off her body—annoys him and eventually drives him away, making her self-imposed isolation all the more profound.

Leigh’s world is as unpredictable as the real one, though, and few things there are simple or clear-cut. Nicola’s condi­tion, so dire that her parents once had to hospitalize her to keep her alive, becomes a channel for the family’s better instincts. Pushed to the limit by her problem daughter, Wendy finally confronts her with the cold facts about her self-destructive present and frighteningly endangered future. This rattles Nicola so much that she lowers her resistance when Natalie reinforces the message in a quiet heart-to-heart. Leigh doesn’t use such moments as a strictly commercial film­maker would, however, ladling out sentiment like a sugary syrup. Wary of “uplift” and allergic to agendas, he lets the movie glide to an open-ended conclusion, trusting us to decide what lies ahead for the characters we’ve gotten to know so intimately.

Leigh’s working methods lend themselves to these richly humanistic moments. Although he studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the London Film School, he also drew inspiration from such mavericks as John Cassavetes (especially his trailblazing 1959 movie Shadows), the French New Wave directors, and the Living Theatre. In the mid-1960s, he hit upon his career-defining idea that writing, directing, and designing could be combined into a single pro­cess, allowing a film or a play to emerge organically from a long period of brainstorming, improvisation, and rehearsal, in full collaboration with the actors and technicians.

He has followed that path ever since. Starting with a cast, a rehearsal space, and a few ideas about possible characters, he guides a series of loose improvisations to tease out a basic story outline, then builds up the material scene by scene—choosing some bits, reshaping or rejecting others—until he’s able to write it down as a screenplay and roll the camera. Everyone shares in all aspects of the work until the last stages, and while Leigh’s name appears as writer and director, he sees his main job as challenging each creative contribution when it arises, always looking for emotional rather than merely intellectual truth.

Like his directing techniques, Leigh’s social and political views date from early in his career. To understand him as a “political” filmmaker, though, you have to understand that word the way he does. He grew up in England’s industrial north, where his father was a physician who took pride in living among the underprivileged people he served. Leigh’s exposure to both an educated household and a working-class community, combined with his proudly Jewish roots, gave him insider status in more than one sociocultural world—a valuable background for an acute observer whose filmmaking methods are grounded in cooperation, empathy, and mutual understanding.

Compared with activist directors like Ken Loach or Derek Jarman, who often convey messages embracing particular causes, Leigh takes a subtler, more indirect approach. His idea of acting politically is simply to share his outlook on life in a manner that resonates with other people. His films “ask a great number of questions but . . . don’t come up with too many answers,” he told me in 1996. “I hope I make films where you walk away . . . with work to do, arguments to have, things to worry about, things to care about. In that sense, I would regard what I do as political.” Above all, Leigh works out social and political problems not through didactic plot twists but through the ways his characters think, speak, and behave. He accomplishes this brilliantly with the emotionally complex members of Wendy and Andy’s household, and in later films he has done the same with such acutely portrayed figures as the viciously alienated antihero of Naked (1993), the racially tense relatives in Secrets & Lies (1996), the cele­brated Gilbert and Sullivan in Topsy-Turvy (1999), and the compassionate abortionist in Vera Drake (2004).

Working with like-minded colleagues is key to Leigh’s enduring success, and Life Is Sweet derives its richness from the participation of many creative personalities. Dick Pope, one of Europe’s most resourceful cinematographers, shot eight more Leigh features after Life Is Sweet. Rachel Portman’s music strikes all the right emotional chords, energizing piv­otal moments without ever intruding on the film’s realistic tone. Most crucial of all are the actors, who inject the picture with a nuance and authenticity that never quit. Life Is Sweet is an ensemble picture in the fullest sense, with characters who remain vividly distinctive while relating to one another so convincingly that you’d think they had lived cheek by jowl forever.

Within the ensemble, the women stand out with special clarity. Jane Horrocks plays the sad, self-torturing Nicola with every inch of her body, twisting her face into paroxysms of hostility and rage that surge through her slender frame and end as fly­away gesticulations of her incessantly restless hands and madly fluttering fingers. Leigh’s then wife, Alison Steadman, a mainstay of his work from television’s Hard Labour (1973) to Topsy-Turvy, balances Horrocks’s fierce performance with a superbly modulated portrayal of Wendy, whose strength and courage lie beneath an unassuming manner and an infec­tious, slightly obsessive laugh that becomes a low-key leitmotif of the film. And as Natalie, whose easygoing demeanor also hides unexpected depths, Claire Skinner combines feet-on-the-ground good sense with a hint of ambiguous sexuality that adds another dash of spice to the household.

The men figure more modestly in Life Is Sweet, but they’re acted just as memorably. In the first of several starring roles for Leigh, the great Jim Broadbent makes Andy the kind of many-sided guy who can bustle for hours in a high-energy job and putter around the house like an amiable nincompoop and exasperate his wife with a harebrained scheme and radiate a stability and warmth that his family relies on every day. Timothy Spall, a veteran of Leigh movies from Home Sweet Home (1982) to All or Nothing (2002), pulls off the astounding feat of making us actually believe that Aubrey, the family friend who owns the Regret Rien, could devise a restaurant menu featuring tripe soufflé, prune quiche, pork cyst, and liver in lager. Aubrey provides one of the story’s climaxes when the eatery’s abysmal opening night (he forgot to advertise it) transforms him into a drunken bull rampag­ing through his own china shop; while some reviewers at the
time called this a scene of slapstick farce, it comes across today as a tragicomic tour de force requiring enormous physical skill and psychological acuity.

Rounding out the principal cast, Stephen Rea plays Patsy, the snack-wagon seller, with an artfully understated booziness that contrasts marvelously with Spall’s sloppy drunk, and David Thewlis is perfect as Nicola’s unnamed boyfriend, who vainly encourages her to behave like the intelligent adult she is. Leigh so regretted having to leave some of this witty, sensitive portrayal on the editing-room floor that he decided to place Thewlis at the center of his next picture. The result was Thewlis’s legendary performance in Naked.

Two qualities are found in all of Leigh’s films about family life: mercurial moods orchestrated with consummate skill and a refusal to idealize or sentimentalize “family values.” Like some American politicians, Thatcher proclaimed the virtue of Victorian-style values while promoting policies that frequently made domestic life more difficult—cutting support for housing and child care, for instance, and famously saying there is “no such thing” as society, just separate people fending mostly for themselves. Life Is Sweet celebrates family by depicting its challenges as well as its rewards. Andy and Wendy are devoted to each other and to their daughters. Yet when Wendy decides to make Nicola face the hard reality that she’s headed for despair and doom, she shows no mercy, and what she stresses is the emptiness of Nicola’s political platitudes, urging her daughter to embrace a solid left-wing cause and make life meaningful by struggling on its behalf.

Less ideologically but no less passionately, Leigh wants to do something similar for his audience. “Life is abrasive for a lot of people,” he told me in a 2000 interview, “and there’s no getting round it. I think the function of art—and the cinema not least—is to confront these things . . . I’m absolutely committed as a filmmaker to be entertaining and to amuse; but I am also concerned to confront.” That sums up the purpose of his utterly personal, radically humanistic films, which have no party line except the conviction that people are infinitely complex, eternally resilient, endlessly fascinating creatures. He has never cooked up a more flavorsome pièce de résistance than Life Is Sweet, a tangy comedy-drama that ranks with his finest work.