Life is Sweet was only Mike Leigh’s third feature-length film. Like Ken Loach, who he is somewhat unfairly compared to, Leigh worked almost exclusively in TV during the ’70s and ’80s. His previous film, High Hopes, had been a big hit at festivals, and even ended up playing the US arthouse circuit to high acclaim. Then Life is Sweet and his follow-up his masterpiece, Naked, cemented him as one of Britain’s finest social realist directors, although Naked is a much darker film, bordering on the surreal.
The film is the fairly straightforward tale of a family and some friends during a summer in North London. The father Andy (Jim Broadbent) has recently bought a decrepit old burger van and works as a chef even though he hates the job. He has twin daughters, one is the tomboy Natalie (Claire Skinner) who is working as a plumber and dreams of visiting America, and the other is the Smiths-loving Marxist feminist Nicola (Jane Horrocks), who is secretly bulimic and rants about how evil men are. Their mother Wendy (Alison Steadman) naturally is the one who keeps the family together through everything, and takes a job as a waitress offered by family friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall), who is opening a bizarrely decorated Parisian restaurant.
Leigh’s main difference from Loach is that he doesn’t go in for the big sweeping political statements, and shows the flaws of people instead of blaming the welfare system or whatever. He is obviously on the same side as Loach most of the time politically, but the politics in his films are also fairly subtle and nuanced. Leigh is far more interested in the quirks of humans and their flaws.
The cast is also impeccable. Jim Broadbent is always a pleasure, and this was a rare leading role for him. Alison Steadman is one of Leigh’s recurring cast members, and ended up getting a few awards for her performances. It also boasts an incredibly fun role from a young Timothy Spall, who would end up becoming one of Leigh’s most frequent collaborators. David Thewlis appears as Nicola’s unnamed boyfriend, who is forced to lick her Nutella-covered chest to get her off. Stephen Rea also appears as the family friend who sells Andy the van.
Overall, Life is Sweet remains one of Leigh’s finest snapshots of his beloved London, and it is funny, sweet and sad all in equal measure, like just life. The disc includes the commentary track that was included on the US Criterion Blu-Ray. There is a Guardian lecture with Leigh on the BFI release, it might be the same audio interview as the Criterion but I can’t confirm that. Jane Horrocks is interviewed in a new piece about her work in the film. There is also a short film by Leigh that was made for 2012 Cultural Olympiad starring Eddie Marsan to round off the disc. The package includes a fat booklet with good new and old writing on the film.