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‹ Flicks with The Film Snob

Life Is Sweet

July 11, 2023
Flicks with The Film Snob
Life Is Sweet

Mike Leigh’s comedy of lower middle class English characters became a template for much of his later work.

Mike Leigh, the British writer and director, came on the scene in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with a series of films portraying the ups and downs of lower middle class life in England. Perhaps the most representative is one from 1990 entitled Life Is Sweet.

In the film we meet a weird family in a London suburb muddling its way through life. Wendy (Alison Steadman) holds things together with her good-natured energy, always laughing at everything, and she’s more than a trifle overbearing as a mom. Her husband Andy (Jim Broadbent) hates his job managing a kitchen at a restaurant, and he’s a bit of an impractical dreamer, getting suckered into buying a dilapidated snack wagon from a friend played by Stephen Rea. They have two daughters: Natalie (Claire Skinner), the one relatively sane person in the film, who looks upon her family’s antics with puzzled bemusement, and Nicola (Jane Horrocks), an angry, foul-mouthed bulimic who spends her time moping indoors and playing weird sex games with her secret boyfriend, played by David Thewlis.

Leigh pulls off the neat trick of making a comedy about wildly eccentric characters without looking down on them. This is partly due, perhaps, to his famously improvisatory methods, in which the cast members create their characters and dialogue through extensive rehearsals. The people are three-dimensional enough to make us feel as if we’re simply sitting among them as equals, and the laughter is therefore always tinged with self-recognition, and sometimes with more than a little pain. An extensive subplot features Timothy Spall as a friend of the family who attempts to launch a French restaurant—one of the most ludicrous restaurants ever conceived, with menu items so revolting that I was almost rolling on the ground laughing. But the hilarity is tied up with failure and a sad fit of self-destruction. Leigh’s comic world view often winds up on a sad note.

Everyone is in fine form, with Steadman and Broadbent anchoring the show. But the funniest, most vivid, and at the same time the most cartoonish performance is by Jane Horrocks, with her rubbery, squinting little face, screechy voice, and wild mess of hair, smoking furiously and telling everyone off. She’s wonderfully obnoxious, and then we get to see the fear and self-hatred behind the rage. The film’s ultimate simplicity of feeling is its greatest strength. There’s nothing trite about Nicola finding some relief and healing through tears. Neither should the title be taken as a joke. For Leigh, life really is sweet. And the mix of humor and hurt helps make it so.

dark comedy,   depression,   English,   family,   restaurant,  


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