Life is Sweet (Mike Leigh, 1990)
Forty minutes through Mike Leigh's family drama Life is Sweet, you get a feeling that Leigh's title to his film might be a tad bit too sarcastic, as what's been shown so far is anything but sweet. We've already been introduced to all of his colorful characters. First is Wendy (Alison Steadman), introduced teaching a bunch of little girls some choreography, is the bubbly matriarch of the film's dysfunctional family. Andy (Jim Broadbent), is the impossibly hopeful patriarch who works as a chef for a hotel, but insists on putting up his food business by buying a wreck of a fast food caravan from shady businessman Patsy (Stephen Rea). Wendy and Andy have twins, who aside from their pale skin and their lifelessly blond hair, are nothing alike. Natalie (Claire Skinner) has a boyish haircut, prefers long sleeve shirts to dresses, but is admirably helpful and empathic to her family. Nicola (Jane Horrocks) has disheveled hair, ticks and twitches, and is impossibly anti-social.
There are other characters to this film. Aubrey (Timothy Spall) is the family friend who has just started his French restaurant, urging his long-time fantasy Wendy to serve as waitress. There's Nicola's secret lover (David Thewlis), who prefers to know the anti-social twin rather than serve her curious kinks and fetishes. Lastly, there's the part-time cook (Moya Brady) in Aubrey's new restaurant, a sort of competitor to Aubrey's sexual advances to the uninterested Wendy.
It's a delightful film that slowly unfolds in interesting paths as it goes along. Although the talkative brandishing of several insults between the family members, the unending nagging, and the sweet nothings, thrown from and to by the characters to each other make this film a bit repetitive and in a way taxing to watch, Leigh makes up for it by slowly unveiling a very sweet emotional core that is only revealed when the film is viewed as a whole. The film seems like an episodic TV sitcom, and I think the film's premise may provide for an interesting sitcom pilot, but it is still very much a Mike Leigh film wherein he tries to reveal the lower-middle class dilemma within the context of a highly unusual British family. Here, he squeezes the characters to reveal their innermost angsts, their dreams (for Andy, to start his very own business, for Wendy, every mother's wish for her kids to be happy), and quirks. Leigh does not outrightly proclaim these as Britain's lower-middle class' aspirations, but the message comes off as strongly as if he painted the words of his message in bright neon red.
Leigh is gifted to have Britain's most outstanding actors to complete the film. Jim Broadbent's Andy is aptly gullible with his bright blue eyes giving off a childlike warmth to the father figure. David Thewlis, Stephen Rea and Timothy Spall provide excellent back-up to the family, putting up an outsider's view to the outlandishly stylized family. For Rea, the family is a source of exploited income. For Spall, a release of sexually repressed energy, and for Thewlis, an urge to uncover but just couldn't. But Life is Sweet primarily belongs to Alison Steadman who in a scene suddenly changes from biting, sarcastic matriarch to a hopeful sweet mom to a child in trouble. It is during that beautifully acted and staged scene wherein Steadman and Jane Horrocks exchange explanations as to why things are going that way, and that despite that, the family has become intact, is when I acknowledge the fact that the title to the film is not in fact, sarcastic but is the theme of Leigh's message: that despite everything, life is still sweet and one must learn to treasure it and to hope to truly appreciate the hidden delicacy of life.