30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on September 29, 2000
Unlike with novelists or musicians, I don't often follow the work of particular directors. But Mike Leigh is an exception. His ability to bring out the best in actors--or his willingness to let them alone to do their best--and then form all the performances into a cohesive movie seems amazing to me. But he not only has confidence in his actors; he has confidence in his audience as well. What results are movies on a human scale, intelligent and revealing.
"Life Is Sweet," like "Secrets and Lies," is one of Leigh's more commercial efforts (as opposed to, say, "Naked"). But "Life" is much lighter and funnier. In this story, there are also family secrets, and difficulties and disappointments, but it never strays far from its title argument: that after all, life IS sweet.
Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge, Topsy-Turvy) and Alison Steadman (Pride and Prejudice, Abigail's Party, and Leigh's real-life wife) play Andy and Wendy, a middle-class suburban English couple. They're loving and hardworking parents, but still young enough themselves to dissolve into laughing fits on the sofa or tease each other to their horror of their daughters.
Andy produces his own minor crisis when his self-employment ambitions take the form of a ratty refreshments van, sold to him by a hilariously untrustworthy Stephen Rea. At the same time, Wendy takes on yet another part-time job when she offers to waitress at a friend's new restaurant--an episode so filled with Timothy Spall's manic efforts that it really defies words.
But the real story in "Life Is Sweet" centers around Andy and Wendy's twin daughters, in their early twenties. Natalie, played by Claire Skinner (Almost Strangers, Naked) is the calm, dry center of the family storm. It's a tribute to Skinner that Natalie remains so likeable and watchable throughout the movie, given that she rarely changes expression or inflection. But within the family dynamics, her character is absolutely understandable.
Not so much the calm center is Nicola, the other twin. Jane Horrocks (Little Voice, Absolutely Fabulous) turns in another astonishing performance as a young woman paralyzed by her own myriad and mostly nameless fears. You desparately want Nicola to reach out for help, even at the same time you find her infuriating or hilarious.
Bolstering the leads are David Thewlis, as Nicola's bizarre daytime visitor, and, as mentioned before, Timothy Spall and Stephen Rea. To measure Spall's versatility, compare his performance here with "Secrets and Lies." And Rea is always great; here he manages to be both slightly menacing and completely hapless.
With this kind of acting, and Leigh's deft hand with loving slices-of-life, there's very little to dislike about this movie.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2000
Director/writer Mike Leigh's working methods are, by now, legendary. He customarily gathers his hand-chosen cast well before filming begins to flesh out characters on their own based on his outline of events and then encourages improvisation to allow the performer to inhabit the character, rather than a stock, lifeless portrayal. The actors aren't the only ones to benefit from this theatre-like approach to filmmaking; Leigh's core audiences eagerly await each entry to his already estimable canon with great anticipation. While SECRETS AND LIES is more dramatic and TOPSY TURVY more cinematic, for me LIFE IS SWEET is the most memorable of his films. Perhaps its the sweet, world-weary musical score from the wonderful Rachel Portman. Or the concentration on just a few days in the lives of a working-class British family and their small circle of friends. Not to mention the miraculous performances of Jane Horrocks as the anguished Nicola--half of a twin sister set (the sublimely droll Claire Skinner is her offset) and the triumphant, life-affirming work of Alison Steadman (Leigh's real-life spouse) as Wendy, the earth-mother with seemingly limitless patience. Since this film, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, and Stephen Rea have gone on to great successes in films like ENCHANTED APRIL, THE CRYING GAME, NAKED, SHOOTING THE PAST, BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, and TOPSY-TURVY, establishing themselves as invaluable players in modern cinema, whether in lead or supporting roles.
LIFE IS SWEET may seem to not "go anywhere" in modern terms, but look closely and the delightful, profoundly moving rewards will suprise you and no doubt lead to repeated viewings, even if just to enjoy Ms Steadman's infectious laugh. A must see for fans of British comedy and drama.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
In the early '90s when LIFE IS SWEET was released, the film made the top 10 lists of film critics everywhere, including Siskel and Ebert, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. So why hasn't this film made it to DVD??
LIFE IS SWEET is the story of a set of twin teenage girls played by Claire Skinner and Jane Horrocks. You'll recognize Claire and Jane if you're a BBC/PBS fan. Claire played a chef-in-training on 'Chef' and a lady cop on 'Second Sight'. Jane Horrocks is LITTLE VOICE and I believe she played 'Bubbles' in 'Absolutely Fabulous'. Alison Steadman plays the mother in LIFE IS SWEET and she played Mrs. Bennett in 'Pride and Prejudice' (the most recent version with Colin Firth).
Claire and Jane play their parts so well it is hard to believe they aren't real identical twins--even though they play very different characters. The first time I saw this film I thought the same girl was playing both roles (as did Hayey Mills in the 'Parent Trap'). The supporting cast includes many familiar faces including Jim Broadbent, whom I first noticed in 'Widow's Peake' though he also starred in the Gilbert and Sullivan film Mike Leigh produced a few years ago.
LIFE IS SWEET is a story of teenage angst in an English working class family. One of the twins, Nicola (played by Jane Horrocks), has a problem with food. She starves herself when others are around and then gorges and purges in private (anorexia nervosa?). When Nicola and her boyfriend have sex she insists they do it with chocolate. Nicola dreams of taking her life beyond the narrow working-class world she inhabits. The other twin, played by Claire Skinner works as a plumber. She appears to be a practical and level-headed youngster, the kind most desired in traditional homes.
Mike Leigh's best films, including LIFE IS SWEET, are stories about working-class youngsters coming of age (SECRETS AND LIES, CAREER GIRLS, MEANTIME). These tales involve the arrival of the protagonist at a new level of awareness and personal resolution following a period of less than enthusiastic participation in a "hostile" world. In the end, Nicola finds her place in the world she inhabits and that life is sweet.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on May 8, 2003
Although I always enjoyed his films, I never fully appreciated Mike Leigh until I heard his commentary on All or Nothing. Since then, I think I have been able to see Leigh for what he is: An incredibly gifted storyteller. I no longer feel the need to search his movies for some overblown message or statement, but rather just allow myself to enter into the lives of the intriguing characters he presents to us, walk with them on their journey, and learn with them as they learn about themselves.
Life is Sweet is generally lighter fare than, say, his much later Secrets and Lies or All or Nothing, but it is no less compelling. The main characters are well-sketched, their humorous idiosyncracies never quite overstepping the mark into caricature (apart from some of the supporting characters, perhaps), and given enough depth and complexity to avoid the impression that Leigh is patronizing towards them (in a way that a lesser storyteller, such as Willy Russell, often appears).
Life is Sweet is very funny, very warm, but also very human and poignant, with a few moments of grittiness. The ensemble of actors, including Jim Broadbent, Alison Steadman and (a very young) Timothy Spall deliver superb performances. Rachel Portman's score veers between the playful and the melancholy, reflecting (creating?) the tone of the film.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 25, 2011
I saw LIFE IS SWEET in the early 1990s after it had received all kinds of acclaim and awards. Since then it has remained one of my favorite movies of all time, on a list that includes LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE GODFATHER, CASABLANCA, GOODFELLAS, REAR WINDOW and AMADEUS.
Having said that, I will concede that this is not a film for everyone. Those who like mainstream Hollywood fare and consider Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock two of the greatest comic actresses of their generation probably won't like this movie. If, on the other hand, you like little independent films that are smart and different and truthful and absolutely one-of-a-kind, this may be right up your alley.
It's offbeat. Absurd. At times even a little weird. And for all of those reasons it stands out for me as one of the truest depictions of family life I've ever seen on film, because most families are offbeat, absurd and at times even a little weird.
The writing is superb -- you won't find many films with a finer ear for dialogue -- and the acting, in particular by Jane Horrocks, Alison Steadman and a very young David Thewlis, is mesmerizing.
This film began my infatuation with the films of Mike Leigh, which continued a couple years later with the amazing NAKED, followed by SECRETS AND LIES, CAREER GIRLS, TOPSY TURVY, ALL OR NOTHING, VERA DRAKE, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY and most recently, ANOTHER YEAR.
This is a film I've always come back to at least once a year, and each time I've been blown away by how wonderful it is -- but until April 2011, it was not available on DVD, except in Region 2 (Europe). And so for years I had to content myself with watching it on VHS! On a cathode-ray-tube television set! As soon as the Region 1 version became available on Amazon, I snatched it up immediately. I wish the transfer had been a bit better, although there's something about the roughness of the print that actually makes a film like this better.
I've probably talked it up too much. It's never good to go into any film with too high expectations. At the end of the day, it's a little, low-budget independent film, but one that's full of some very big gifts for the discerning moviegoer. I recommend you buy the DVD and judge for yourself.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2013
I initially became familiar with Mike Leigh's work with "Naked" in 2006. Being an avid fan of Criterion I still remember purchasing Naked out of sheer curiosity with absolutely zero expectations. Upon my first viewing, I was blown away and ever since then, Mike Leigh has always been on my radar. Personally, I feel that his craftsmanship is poignant and superb when he is carefully orchestrating his characters. When a director puts so much effort and creativity into his characters like Mike Leigh does, Life is Sweet.
Life is Sweet indeed, and even sweeter in North London where a working class family struggles financially, emotionally and mentally too. Despite their struggles, a strong and even more powerful sense of happiness and hope hang over this dysfunctional family.
Andy, the father, is a senior chef in a large catering facility who hates his job but never lets this hatred obstruct his newly found passion for reinvigorating a shabby fast-food van. Wendy, the mother, who is outspokenly against this newly found passion respects her husbands ambitions. Their two identical twin daughters, Nicola and Natalie are a pair to be remembered. Their personalities and attitudes are different as night and day and their interaction is especially memorable. Every family has a slightly awkward but highly lovable friend and that is Aubrey. Aubrey, whose struggles are similar and yet different at the same time plans to open a Parisian-themed restaurant in London.
Upon viewing this film, I couldn't help but to draw a strikingly similarity to an American television sitcom that I happened to love which was "Married with Children"; two poor working class families that struggle everyday but simply manage to make the best in their social unit. They accept their struggles and live to fight another day.
I feel that Mike Leigh has always one memorable and touching scene in his films. In Life is Sweet, Nicola and her mother have one of the most emotionally charged confrontations. In summary, Wendy frustratingly expresses the deep love that she and the rest of the family has for her. Nicola's alarming shield of bitterness and reclusive behavior is weakened and completely broken down. Ultimately, she becomes naked and breaks down sobbing.
Behind this scene, is the conversation between Nicola and her boyfriend who is played by the brilliant David Thewlis nonetheless. He challenges her mental intellect and makes the claim that she is simply incapable of having any sort of an adult relationship. These two scenes are so important because they lead one into the other. Nicola's boyfriend drives her alarmingly antisocial behavior into another extreme which attracts the mother's attention and inevitably brings about a confrontational argument.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2004
The story focuses on a family that lives in the outskirts of London where they try to make the most of the life. Andy, the father, works as a supervisor for a large kitchen and he hates his job. Andy is a dreamer that often does not get things done, but always starts countless new tasks as he has aspirations to start something new. The mother, Wendy, works as a clerk in a small boutique that sells children's clothing and she teaches physical education in an elementary school. Through a friend of the family she gets a night job as a waitress in a French gourmet restaurant in order to help the friend to get back on his feet.
Wendy and Andy do what they can to make life tolerable and enjoyable. They make the most of the ups and laugh at the downs. Together Andy and Wendy have raised a pair of twins that are now twenty-something, Natalie and Nicola. The positive Natalie is a hard working plumber who has inherited her hard working attitude from her mother, and she acquired her father's visionary skills as she aspires to go to the United States. Nicole is the opposite of Natalie as she is exceedingly pessimistic, introspective, bulimic, nervous, depressed, and unemployed.
Wendy and Andy's daughters, friends, and self-imposed friends brings them joy and misery. Together they display an intriguing resilience to deal with the issues that trouble them through a positive, loving, and sometimes joking attitude. Their knowledge of life is great as they do not worry over things they cannot control, but they are fully aware that they can control their own feelings towards life whether it is good or bad. Natalie and Nicole become an allegorical example for the good and bad times as they are opposites, and the parents embrace both.
Life is Sweet brings "life" to the audience through the family that experiences both ups and downs. Mike Leigh's creative direction brings the cast together to rehearse before establishing the script. These rehearsals often contain improvisation and suggestions from the cast which results in a unique cinematic experience with characters offering great depth. Leigh truly displays skill and ambition to work in a team atmosphere in order to bring out the absolute best from each individual. The outcome from the teamwork is an excellent cinematic experience as it feels both genuine and it offers some valuable lessons to the audience.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 22, 2013
I've been waiting for this one on disc forever so it's nice to finally have it, particularly on blu ray. It's my favorite Mike Leigh film and one of my favorite films, period. The entire cast is superb and the film captures the trials and tribulations as well as the delights and humor of this working class family with nuance and grace. It's one of those movies where it's just an experience to spend time with such vivid characters.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 6, 2013
So real and so funny. A very accurate depiction of a marriage and life with teenagers. A beautiful, humorous look at life in the modern world. This film holds up very well over time. It is a timeless classic. The characters, dialogue and timing are impeccable; my favorite Mike Lee movie.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on November 20, 2011
My earlier review of this DVD is below. In it, I expressed my hope that Criterion would give this lovely movie the presentation it deserves. Well, they've done it. It's not been released yet and I suppose I should wait until my Criterion copy arrives, but they've done right by every movie they've released, so I don't expect to be let down.
And, really, if you haven't seen this movie, you're missing something wonderful. And truly sweet.
So, call it 3.5 stars. 'Life Is Sweet' is one of my favorite movies but this is a rather poor DVD print (struck from VHS, it seems) . Still, it's a small improvement over my cassette copy. At least now I can stop worrying about the old VCR eating the tape every time I watch it.
It's a shame that a movie this great doesn't get the presentation it deserves. Hello, Criterion? Anybody home? Wake up and save this wonderful film.