Following previous editions of Naked and Topsy-Turvy, The Criterion Collection has recently released Mike Leigh’s 1990 film, Life is Sweet – a work regularly regarded, along with the aforementioned, as among his greatest. This film, however, proves strikingly different from those better known offerings, respectively his darkest and most conventional works. Eliminating all narrative frills, Leigh is left with pure, character-based drama, and the most intimate evocation of family dynamics of his career.
The film features very little in the way of traditional plot. Instead, Leigh offers a series of vignettes – small scenes chronicling the quotidian life of a working class London family and their friends. The cast is a veritable who’s-who of British cinema of the ‘80s and ‘90s, including Leigh’s former wife, Alison Steadman, Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea, Timothy Spall, Jane Horrocks, Claire Skinner, and – in a small role – future Naked star David Thewlis. With this talented ensemble, Leigh constructed his film in his usual method: by directing improvisations to create characters and scenes, from which he set down a final screenplay. Throughout the film, parents Wendy (Steadman) and Andy (Broadment) and their two daughters – thoughtful Natalie (Skinner) and rage-filled, bulimic Nicola (Horrocks) – experience what might be major moments in another film: a broken-down food truck is purchased, a restaurant has a disastrous opening night, an ankle is broken. However, for Leigh, these actions are far less significant than conversations and the everyday interactions between people.
In the films of many of Leigh’s contemporaries who also focused on working class characters, such as Ken Loach and Stephen Frears, there is a greater tendency toward understated naturalism. Leigh, however, is more indebted to the comic traditions of the Ealing comedy or the novels of Charles Dickens. The characters are all exaggerated figures, all defined by specific emotions and tics, such as Nicola’s rage and fluttering hands or Wendy’s bubbly, ever-present laughter.
The difference between these influences and the seemingly-cartoonish characters of Leigh’s film, however, lies in the fact that Dickens and the Ealing films tend to suggest that the tics are the person. Leigh, however, acknowledges exaggerated behavior as part of the social acting that everyone engages in to some extent. Characters are frequently filmed through windows throughout the film, an aesthetic choice that suggests a sense of constant surveillance. These figures are constantly performing for each other, enacting exaggerated forms of their chosen personae. However, in quiet moments, when they find themselves alone or with only their most intimate partner or family member, the tics become quieter, the voices softer, the faces relaxed, and the soft, pained souls peek through.
Though Leigh is occasionally pegged as a cruel satirist trading in class-based grotesques, Life is Sweet is a work that could only be made by a compassionate humanist. However cartoonish his characters may appear, they are all allowed the dignity of being full, aching individuals. Though the film often depicts the distances between people, it emphasizes the characters’ longing to reach out to one another. During an early scene, the family sits in the living room, eating lunch together. Typically, Nicola lashes out, criticizing each member of the family, insisting that their thoughts and behavior are meaningless clichés. Though the family tells her she can leave, she remains, prompting her sister to say, “See, you want to be with us. So, why can’t you just act normal?” Nicola’s reaction suggests that she does not know the answer herself.
Moments like this, in which love, anger, and sadness all coexist, ground the comedy in something true and painful. Accompanied by Rachel Portman’s waltzing, whimsical score, Leigh transforms elements of broad comedy into an intimate, melancholy drama. Though drawn in primary colors, Life is Sweet remains Leigh’s truest and subtlest portrait of familial love.