Criterion Corner Review: Mike Leigh's 'Life Is Sweet'

“What is lunch anyway”, sneers the ever-indignant Nicola (Jane Horrocks) in Mike Leigh’s “Life is Sweet”. “It’s just a convention”. It isn’t difficult to imagine such a faux-radical platitude spat out, just a few years later, by the even more world-weary Johnny in Leigh’s veritably apocalyptic follow up, “Naked”, in which the torpedoing of social conventions comes to form a kind of sustained worldview.

At first blush the two films seem like clear inversions of one another: where “Naked” feels thoroughly caustic and grim, a cynical reflection of and battle-cry against Thatcherism and social decay, “Life is Sweet” looks markedly brighter, the harshness of its world more muted, its ending suggesting hope where “Naked” dashes it completely. The films even have opposite color palettes, with the sunny afternoon pasteles of “Life is Sweet” traded out in “Naked” for bruise-like blacks and blues.

“Naked” revolves around a sort of secret British underworld. Its anti-hero, Johnny (David Thewlis), is a Manchester native suddenly exiled to the streets of London, where he spends his time wandering the streets and pontificating to strangers sad or lonely enough to listen. His philosophical sermonizing makes him as much an anarchic scholar as a sophisticated street-corner preacher, an appropriate combination given that his lecture topics range from vitriolic social critiques to prophetic doomsday declarations.

All of this makes for a (masterfully) bleak diagnosis of the contemporary human condition, particularly as it proceeds to disintegrate in modern Britain, and though the world never ended exactly in the way that Johnny predicted it to, in another sense maybe it already did. (You can see the seeds of the 2011 London riots in the gang-beating Johnny receives at the hands of a band of hooligans, a random act of violence spurred on by nothing but boredom and discontent.)

“Life is Sweet” isn’t quite so...severe. Its title, first of all, isn’t necessarily intended to be ironic, even though much of the sweetness on display throughout is decidedly bitter. But the film is nevertheless marked by a certain air of levity and high spirits: rather than a misanthropic drifter, “Life is Sweet” tells the story of a close-knit family of four living together in a working-class London neighborhood. Andy (Jim Broadbent) is working as an uninspired chef at a mass-market kitchen he hates when a seedy friend, Patsy (Stephen Rea), sells him a rusted, broken-down chip truck for four hundred quid, which he hopes to fix up and use as a passion project.

His wife, Wendy (Alison Steadman), sells baby clothes a downtown boutique, but she offers to help her friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall) launch his ambitious French restaurant when his head waitress quits at the last minute. And they have twins, a tomboy named Natalie (Claire Skinner) who works part-time as a plumber, and Nicola, a perpetually sour-faced pseudo-intellectual without a job or a kind word for anyone. Much of the film involves the comings and goings of their daily life and the gentle bickering that follows. It might reasonably be described as a comedy.

But it seems obvious now, more than twenty years after its initial release, that “Life is Sweet” is every bit as pained and angry as “Naked”—it’s just about characters less able or willing to articulate that anger. “Life is Sweet” is almost certainly Mike Leigh’s funniest film, but what’s interesting is that it’s also among his saddest. The broad humor and screwball antics that are its defining feature—think, for instance, of the main set piece involving hopeful restaurateur Aubrey and his disastrous opening night—mask the sense of utter desperation at the heart of the film, a feeling that lingers long after the credits unceremoniously roll. What’s strange, of course, is that this pain is rarely made explicit. With the exception of a single mother-daughter confrontation, there are no blow-ups or meltdowns to bring darker thoughts to the surface, which leaves most feelings implied but unspoken.

The rest is apparent only at the periphery: you can see it in the mannerisms and hear it in the pauses between words. Wendy’s good-natured joshing makes up for awkward silences and side-steps sadness. Natalie’s cool-headed temperament doesn’t stop her from feeling aimless. Andy’s attempt to buy the ridiculous food cart betrays how badly he wants out of his day job. And Nicola’s ornery disposition is a defense mechanism hiding the severe eating disorder she suffers from privately. None of these points plays out like a sudden revelation or an important character twist. It’s simply part of their three-dimensional lives, which are, like everyone’s, as much about pleasure as pain.

life is sweet criterion

THE TRANSFER: Perfection. As with all of Criterion's finest HD transfers, watching the Blu-ray of "Life is Sweet" offers the illusion that you're seeing a freshly struck 35mm print on opening night. Criterion has maintained a healthy (but never intrusive) degree of grain, and the picture detail is remarkable.

THE EXTRAS: First up are Mike Leigh's "Five-Minute Films," a sextet of shorts that the BBC commissioned Leigh to make in 1975 (though they went unseen until 1982 because the program was ultimately cancelled before it had a chance to air). Leigh's idea was to create a expansive series of five-minute dramas that self-contained but nevertheless in dialogue with one another, creating a comprehensively fluid world in a gambit similar to what Mitchell Hurwitz attempted with the fourth season of "Arrested Development." All six of the shorts are presented here in full, complete with an introduction from Leigh in which he explains the project. The films look fresh out of the vault, but are nevertheless completely watchable, and compulsively so in their own low-key way.

Also included is an hour-long audio interview that Leigh recorded in 1991, which begins with the filmmaker being branded as "The Scourge of the Middle Classes" and quickly takes off from there. The conversation spends the brunt of its time focusing on "Life is Sweet," but also manages to provide a broader context for Leigh's unique approach to filmmaking and his place in the discourse.

The big draw here, however, has to be Mike Leigh's audio commentary.  Audio commentary is a perfect format for Leigh, who loves to talk about his work, but hates to answer for it (I mean that in the most approving way possible). He's off like a shot from the moment the film begins, kicking off this exclusive audio commentary by rattling off an epic series of nouns that he thinks describe the film ("quiche" is followed by "rape"), and he hardly takes a breath from there. Leigh's style of commentary is as hard to pin down as the nature of how his films are written – his remarks don't feel prepared, and yet they're so precise and eloquent that it's difficult to fathom anyone summoning them on the spot. Leigh is wonderfully candid, and quite loving of his collaborators (from Rachel Portman to Dick Pope). Essential listening for any Leigh fan.

THE ARTWORK: The cover art accurately reflects the deceptive simplicity of the film, a plain image that hides a rewarding richness. Mercifully, the blue and white color scheme breaks away from the garish title treatment that we see in the film.

THE SCORE: 8.8 / 10

"Life is Sweet" is available now from The Criterion Collection.