Family Flavours in Mike Leigh’s ‘Life is Sweet’

Family, friends, and food form the focus of Leigh’s broad but funny, relatable and affectionate 1990 film, which here receives a welcome Blu-ray and DVD re-release from BFI.

Children are seldom seen in the cinema of Mike Leigh. This absence is doubtless due to the strictures of the director’s character- and story-building methods, which might make the participation of child actors in Leighland rather problematic. In fact, the only notable child protagonist in Leigh’s cinema is Charlie (Charlie Difford), Poppy’s student in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), and even here the boy’s problems are merely used as a plot device to bring together the heroine and a social worker love interest. Though the issue is sometimes thematised in Leigh’s portraits of couples who are unable to conceive, the absence of children can seem a significant blind spot in films that clearly aspire to the presentation of full, detailed, realistically depicted social worlds.

In this sense, Leigh’s 1990 film, Life is Sweet, is a novelty, since it begins with a whole roomful of kids: a class of little girls dancing and exercising as the credits roll to a chirpy ditty (penned by Rachel Portman) with the lyrics “Happy, happy, happy, holidays!” Leading the class is Wendy (Alison Steadman), a 40-something blonde in a pink shirt and black leggings, who pretty much encapsulates the spirit of the song as she dances, jokes and encourages the kids’ participation. It’s a delightful opening scene, one of Leigh’s most charming, as it depicts a character fully immersed in work that may seem humble but that nonetheless requires presence and focus: work that can be enjoyed, work that can make you happy.

Wendy, it soon becomes apparent, is one of Leigh’s “happy” women (Ruth Sheen’s Maureen in All or Nothing [2002] and the aforementioned Poppy are other examples of this particular character type). These are all protagonists who, whatever their problems, tend to keep on the sunny side of life, or who at least endeavour to. With her braying laugh, love of a bad pun, and occasional tendency to embarrass people, Wendy can seem shrill and silly, but the film makes a convincing case for her goodness, too. Happily married to Andy (Jim Broadbent), a chef whose dubious money-making schemes she both chides and tolerates, she’s mother to two contrasting twins, the brattish, secretly bulimic and desperately unhappy Nicola (Jane Horrocks) and the wry, hard-working Natalie (Claire Skinner).

It’s this latter relationship that gives a wider significance to the presence of those dancing girls in the film’s opening sequence, as Wendy sometimes indulges in momentary fits of nostalgia, lovingly polishing framed photos of her twins as tots in their ballet gear, or recalling the time when the girls were babies, and her hopes for them: “They were such lovely little dolly whatsits, sitting there in their matching little outfits. My little Natalie and my little Nicola… And look at ‘em now.”

Family and friendship form the focus of Life is Sweet and, now re-released in a nicely packaged BFI Blu-ray/DVD set, the film feels both of-its-moment and surprisingly fresh. This was the first movie that Leigh made with Thin Man films, the production company that he founded with Simon Channing Williams, and it shows a new growth in his work as a filmmaker, following the long gap between his first feature, Bleak Moments (1971), and his next, High Hopes (1988). (In the interim Leigh worked prolifically in both theatre and TV.) There are some forced and ugly elements (the font that the title is presented in seems unnecessarily hideous, for one) and you wouldn’t have foreseen the epic period canvasses of Topsy-Turvy (1999) or Mr. Turner (2014) in Leigh’s future on the evidence of this film. However, working for the first time with the great Dick Pope (DP on all of Leigh‘s subsequent film projects), the director succeeds in bringing a certain hanging-back elegance to the compositions here, bestowing the film’s very ordinary Enfield locations with a little beauty, a little glow.

The film’s scope is modest and narrative incident is minimal: a few days in the life of a family during which Dad buys a busted-up “Hot Snacks” van from one friend, Patsy (Stephen Rea), and Mum helps out another friend, Aubrey (Timothy Spall), at a disastrous restaurant opening night. Yet as a funny-sad family portrait, the film has great appeal, as Leigh centralises bits of British life that are rarely seen on screen. (It’s also a foodie film of a particular kind, namely one that’s not likely to send you scurrying off to replicate the recipes featured: unless “Liver in Lager” and “Pork Cyst”, two of the concoctions on Aubrey’s menu, happen to be your bag.)

Like High Hopes, Life is Sweet also exhibits a broadly theatrical (though less scornful) side, not least in a couple of its performances. Jane Horrocks as Nicola, the twin whose low self-image has resulted in snarling cynicism, and Timothy Spall as Aubrey, the portly chum whose dress sense is as questionable as his entrepreneurial instincts, are the kind of heightened, tic-heavy turns that have found Leigh branded a caricaturist, and it’s true that they rub up against the film’s social realism in ways that are as jarring as they are distinctive. An unpleasant strand of sexual stuff — including Aubrey’s overtures toward his glum employee (Moya Brady) and, iconically, Nicola’s chocolate spread sex sessions with her lover (David Thewlis) — is also present, slyly anticipating Leigh’s next film, the decidedly more provocative and polarising Naked (1993).

The mix of elements — sitcom humour, family pain, theatrical performance — doesn’t always gel, but Life is Sweet modulates much more successfully than High Hopes did. At the subtler end of the scale, for example, is Claire Skinner’s well-judged performance as Natalie, the tomboy plumber. Alongside Wendy, Natalie emerges as Life is Sweet’s other heroine, in fact. As she diligently gets on with her work (against what we learn were initial parental objections) and plans a trip to the States, the film posits her quieter rebellion as much more genuinely subversive and radical than Nicola’s showy displays of disaffection, which include hissed put-downs to all and sundry (“Fascist!” “Capitalist!”) and a “Bollocks to the Poll Tax” T-shirt.

Mostly due to Aubrey’s woeful business efforts, Life is Sweet has indeed sometimes been interpreted politically — as a satiric swipe at Thatcherite entrepreneurialism — though it’s notable that Wendy’s comments to Nicola towards the end constitute a heartfelt rebuke to the work-shy that Margaret Thatcher might well have welcomed. The remarks come in the film’s most powerfully affecting scene, a mother/daughter altercation in which Wendy, forcefully but then lovingly, confronts Nicola with some home truths that seem to shock the girl into new awareness.

Leigh being Leigh, there’s no really cosy sense of resolution but rather an air of tentatively expressed hope, the scene serving much as the emotional showdown in Secrets and Lies (1996) would serve: as a clearing of the air between family members who are in fact much closer than they may believe. Life goes on, things get said or they don’t, our family and friends may delight or disappoint us, complicity may exist under the conflict. “I think we should do something about it… You and me,” says Natalie to Nicola, gently showing her awareness of her sister‘s problems, and offering a helping hand. It’s in such quiet, unstressed moments that Life is Sweet touchingly transcends its broader elements, winning its way to truth in the end.

The DVD transfer is excellent. Extras in the booklet include a contemporary review of the film by John Pym and a solid essay by Ashley Clark that’s a bit limitedly focused on the character of Aubrey. Extras on the DVD consist of an illuminating interview with an exuberant Jane Horrocks, an audio-only Leigh interview with Derek Malcolm, and a frank and funny audio commentary (previously featured on the film’s Criterion Collection edition) which finds Leigh calling Life is Sweet “my least favourite of my films. That isn’t to say I don’t like it. I do…in parts.”

The biggest bonus, however, is the inclusion of Leigh’s jaunty short film, A Running Jump, which was commissioned for the Cultural Olympiad in 2012. Featuring Eddie Marsan as a motor-mouthed car dealer, Samantha Spiro as his exercise-instructor wife and Sam Kelly as his taxi driver Dad, the film slyly nods at other Leigh works (notably All or Nothing and, yes, Life is Sweet), as it delightfully shows sport as interwoven into the fabric of the average family’s average day.

RATING 8 / 10