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Criterion Collection: Life is Sweet | Blu-ray Review

Life is Sweet Mike Leigh Blu-ray Cover1990’s Life is Sweet is generally considered – when it’s considered at all – one of the lesser lights in writer/director Mike Leigh’s constellation of films. The work’s underwhelming reputation was aided and abetted by the fact that for the last 20 years it’s been damn hard to see. With no official North American rental release, a purchase only, on demand DVD burn from Amazon has been the film’s only means of dissemination for much of the world. Fortunately, Criterion has stepped in to right this injustice with a gorgeous new Blu-ray edition, and life is once again sweet for the legions of Leigh.

In fact, Life is Sweet is the prototypical Mike Leigh film, embodying all that is right and good about the early phase of the director’s career. Before he branched into darker themes and period pieces, Leigh made his name with sharply observed comedies depicting blandly ordinary working class Brits getting on with their lives, complete with tender hopes and twinkly dreams undashed by Thatcher’s experiments in Social Darwinism. Leigh’s two films from 1988, High Hopes and the made-for-TV The Short and Curlies, used lightness and eccentricity to celebrate the daily heroism of the masses and to individualize the tough slog faced by the young and unremarkable.

Life is Sweet applies Leigh’s effects to a more mature family, led by 40-ish hotel chef Andy (Jim Broadbent) and the effervescent Wendy (Alison Steadman) who holds down a variety a part time jobs. Still at home are their university-age twin daughters: the studious, well adjusted Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks), a snarling, bulimic layabout full of blind, unfocused rage. One fine afternoon, Andy leaves their humble North London townhome to visit a scrapyard with his childhood friend Patsy (Stephen Rea), an amiable ne’er-do-well with a deep fondness for ale. There, Andy acquires a rusting abandoned food truck – years before such an idea was trendy – with misty dreams of finally going into business for himself.

While Andy’s scheme is greeted with skepticism, it serves as a sort of slow motion catalyst for Leigh’s widening web of offbeat character sketches. Along the way, viewers are introduced to Aubrey (Timothy Spall), a former coworker of Andy’s who is now about to open his own tragically hip bistro, featuring a menu so exotic it’s downright stomach-turning, and a thuggish young loser (David Thewlis) who casually endures a bit of rough stuff sex with Nicola every Wednesday afternoon. Through a number of meandering, but delightful, digressions – in Leigh’s best work digressions are the building blocks of narrative – the film’s collection of snapshots form a rich and compelling album of life as Britain’s tumultuous 20th Century draws to a knackered close.

In typical Mike Leigh fashion, Life is Sweet rises and falls on the strength of its characterizations and happily the film offers acting splendors aplenty. Steadman (the then Mrs. Leigh) creates marvels as Wendy, adopting the permanent, slightly annoying chuckle of matriarchs who have seen it all and must adopt sunny attitudes just to remain sane. Her bouncy pep is part denial, part self defense but her giggles act as a binder cementing her family together. One reason this reviewer was not thrilled with Leigh’s critically popular Happy Go Lucky from 2010 was Sally Hawkins’ regurgitation of a character Alison Steadman had played more effectively 20 years earlier.

Viewers who know Jane Horrocks mainly as the uber-ditz Bubble from the Britcom Ab Fab will be shocked at the blackhearted textures she achieves here. Horrocks pushes the character right to the edge of cartoon, then deftly backtracks as her immeasurable insecurities eventually tumble out like potatoes from a torn sack. Broadbent and Rea, both veteran character actors in the midst of career breakthroughs, bring subtle flavors to their camaraderie that make any notions of backstory superfluous. Through tossed away line readings and abrupt intonations, the pair evoke the muscle memory of a lifetime of shared experience. One boozy night in a smoky pub the men hold forth on the great footballers of their youth and mourn the sport’s heroic history lost in time’s relentless drift. Despite the scene’s comedic tenor, and their buzzed stupor, Broadbent and Rea experience a universal passage toward mortality: that moment when sports fans realize that star athletes are now much younger than them.

Disc Review

Life is Sweet looks marvelous in blu. The transfer retains the film’s original sunny look with excellent tonal range and crisp shadow clarity. Shown in 1.85:1, the disc is remarkably clean and has just the right touch of fine grain. No issues or complaints at all.

The audio mix is in the original stereo – but processed for surround – and it too is above reproach. The muttered accents of Leigh’s characters ring true and clear in this mix, eliminating any need for subtitles (although Criterion, as usual, has thoughtfully provided them). Rachael Portman’s charming and memorable score, always a thing of beauty, shines with new verve and catchiness.

New audio commentary featuring director Mike Leigh
Leigh, never shy about discussing his work, approaches his commentary with vigor and thoroughness. He goes into great detail on every aspect of the production, in particular the unique contributions of designer Alison Chitty. We learn much about his collaborative relationship with cameraman Dick Pope, and their mutual love of visual simplicity. Portman’s waltzy score is discussed in detail, including her inspiration from the songs of Edith Piaf. Some of Leigh’s most amusing comments occur during a discussion of Spall’s restaurant, which Leigh describes as “the most riduclous, implausible thing I’ve ever created.” The commentary track is indispensable for fans of the Mike Leigh canon and is a truly valuable supplement.

Audio recording of a 1991 interview with Leigh at the National Film Theatre in London
Presumably produced for radio, this rather plodding program covers some of the same ground as the film’s commentary track. Leigh is generous with crediting his actors and collaborators while describing himself as merely “an observer of the working class.” The popularity of his work in America is discussed at length, with all participants expressing surprise at the universal appeal of these very British stories. There are some interesting moments here, but at slightly over 60 minutes the supplement as a whole is a tough sit.

Five short films written and directed by Leigh for the proposed television series Five-Minute Films,with a new audio introduction by Leigh
Made in 1975, these jewels of the short film format sparkle with wit and irony, and by themselves are worth the price the disc. In this quintet we meet a jaded probation officer, a young couple debating whether to have a child, a gossipy reunion of childhood friends and a discussion of romance by two tipsy housewives. In the best of the bunch, a very young Richard Griffiths makes an appearance as a window washer in a clever piece that shows the drama behind packaged snack food. Each short is a testament to Leigh’s mastery of human interaction, with quick character establishment and perfectly paced dialogue ripe with nuance. Highly recommended.

Plus: A booklet featuring an essay by critic David Sterritt
This 14 page pamphlet is illustrated with production photos, credits and notes on the transfer. Sterritt’s essay offers plenty of perspective on Leigh’s career along a number of spot-on insights, in particular the directors reliance on female characters to drive the narrative.

Final Thoughts

Mike Leigh’s vibrant realism is accomplished the old fashioned way, through clever, perceptive writing and painstaking immersion in character. He has never resorted to bouncy cameras or other documentary style shorthand to sell audiences his bill of goods, but trusted only actors and text to structure worlds so common and familiar they unnerve. The homey flesh and blood creations of Mike Leigh seem to live just down the street, whether that street is in London or Lubbock. Life is Sweet finds this unique auteur at the top of his game and viewers will be entranced by the film’s densely dimensional characters and warmed by its fully human glow

David Anderson is a 25 year veteran of the film and television industry, and has produced and directed over 2000 TV commercials, documentaries and educational videos. He has filmed extensively throughout the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean for such clients as McDonalds, General Motors and DuPont. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Reygadas (Silent Light), Weerasathakul (Syndromes and a Century), Dardennes (Rosetta), Haneke (Caché), Ceylon (Climates), Andersson (You the Living), Denis (35 Shots of Rum), Malick (The Tree of Life), Leigh (Another Year), Cantet (The Class)

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