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UK 1990
Directed by
Mike Leigh
103 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Life Is Sweet

In his second feature film Mike Leigh delivers an entertaining, candid and comic playlet on the everyday lives of a lower middle-class North London family, a kind of updating of the 1940s more sentimental equivalent when Jack Warner would have played the dad and Thora Hird his wife.

Using many of the players such as David Thewlis (who would star in Leigh's next film, the 1993 masterpiece, Naked), Jim Broadbent and Timothy Spall who would effectively function as his repertory cast and utilising the process which became his standard working method of developing the characters with his cast over a lengthy rehearsal period, Life is Sweet, rewards with its insightful portrayal of the bitter-sweet realities of its subjects and their small dreams.

Revolving around food, but for once not in a good way, Jim Broadbent plays Andy who works as a head chef in an industrial kitchen while his wife Wendy (Alison Steadman) works in a baby goods shop.  They have twin daughters, Natalie (Claire Skinner) a plumber and Nicola (Jane Horrocks) a twitchy bulemic who stays home all day and bemoans the state of the world. Timothy Spall plays Aubrey the culinary-challenged and volatile restaurateur who is opening a French restaurant dedicated to Edith Piaf with a menu that for lack of appeal is beyond belief with items such as prune quiche (“for our vegetarian friends”), boiled bacon consommé and tongue in a rhubarb hollandaise sauce.  Meanwhile Andy is conned into buying a clapped-out caravan by Patsy (Stephen Rea) with idea of starting his own take-away business.

Leigh gets the setting exactly right and that means monotonous semi-detached housing, shell suits and plastic garden furniture as well as planting a few specific temporal co-ordinators such as an anti-Poll Tax t-shirt on Nicola and a U2 poster on her bedroom wall.  Although Wendy’s endless nervous laughter gets a bit wearing, the characters are presented with affection with Timothy Spall in his first major role outstanding and Jane Horrocks achieving quite a degree of poignancy with her abrasively defensive but achingly lonely character.




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