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This review is from: Life Is Sweet [VHS] (VHS Tape)
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.