Life is Sweet Jan 22, 2014 18:20:10 GMT -5 via mobile
Post by StevePulaski on Jan 22, 2014 18:20:10 GMT -5
Life is Sweet (1990)
Directed by: Mike Leigh
Directed by: Mike Leigh
Claire Skinner and Jane Horrocks.
Life is Sweet is a deeply moving, tough slice-of-life served on the grandiose platter that is cinema. It's a rich little film centered around an incredibly dysfunctional working class family just north of London, residing in a congested yet heavily-decorated home. The family is made up of hard-working and ambitious father Andy (Jim Broadbent), playful and often whiny mother Wendy (Alison Steadman), determined and introverted adolescent Natalie (Claire Skinner), and her sarcastic often patronizing twin Nicola (Jane Horrocks).
Writer/director Mike Leigh follows this dysfunctional bunch, rarely orchestrating a frame that isn't fixated on one of the family members. Through the limitless realms of conversational intimacy and quietly effective, filmic poetry, he allows his characters to talk openly and frequently rather than handing them a contrived plot to work off of. Leigh's style is an incredible one. He takes his actors, provides them with an outline for specific scenes, and allows them to improvise and bounce ideas of one another so as to squeeze all the possibilities out of a certain scene and setting. When Leigh and his tight-knit band of actors are ready, shooting will commence.
Through this tactic, Leigh allows for a rare and unfortunately underrated style of intimacy to prevail. The first fifteen minutes of Life is Sweet provided me with an unparalleled depiction of rapid-fire conversation that I have gone far too long without seeing. This style comes from everyone in the family, who respond just quick and spontaneous enough for realism to triumph over drivel and just naturalistic enough to sound authentic and as if they're making the material up on the dime (which they relatively did). The gifted improvisationist on hand here is Horrocks, playing a deeply-troubled girl who doesn't know what she wants or what direction she is going in life and her only vice is to attack her family members and acquaintances in a demonizing, mean-spirited way. However, this character is not contemptible, at least to us, as we see her insecurity and burdened attitude from a human standpoint rather than one where our response almost seems to giggle and mimic her behavior.
To combat her family's conventional sense of behavior and the world around her, Horrocks' Nicola uses buzzwords and names she willfully takes out of context. "Fascist!," she screams at her mother after she disapproves of her daughter's actions. One can only admire her cute little resistance and opposition to authority for what it is. Her defense mechanism is taking everything, regardless of how genial and well-meaning it is, and using it as an insult or a demeaning remark from somebody ostensibly in an higher position than she is. Despite this, her character has the ability to potentially relate to other members of the audience probably more-so than any other character in this film (and they all can be pretty damn relatable).
A subplot involves a roly-poly, pudgy man named Aubrey (Timothy Spall), a good friend of this dysfunctional family, who plans on opening a restaurant downtown, serving unique and somewhat-daring cuisines. Spall plays a character fit for a farce and, at first, seems to be Leigh's attempt to steer this project away from heights too depressing and offputting. However, Leigh finds ways to get this character to fit in perfectly with this dark and often bleak material, offering a slapstick force to the story that isn't too overbearing or nauseating and tiresome. Leigh writes a difficult character effectively and Spall musters up an ample amount of energy and drive to play the character beautifully.
The cinematography by Dick Pope (who would later go on to do Oscar winning cinematographical work in The Illusionist along with similar work in Richard Linklater's Bernie) is also a sight for sore eyes here, combining an array of soft colors with the tenderness of the London atmosphere. Brought into wonderful conjunction with Leigh's astute framing - which occasionally turns daring by narrowing itself in setting to small rooms and through open doorways - the appearance of the film is comparable to the style of independent auteur Wes Anderson. It's touching and a beautiful inclusion to a well-told story.
Ultimately, Life is Sweet is character-heavy and that's its best attribute. Because of its deep-rooted investments in six very intriguing people, it allows its themes and story to hit notes of actual working class life. These same characters could be thrown in a belittling film that either relies too heavily on self-referential trite or nonsensical antics, but instead, sees them as easily-breakable souls through a lens of considerable warmness. I loved Life is Sweet almost as much as my own life - and without the context of this review, that line would seem like a hopeless line of overpraise.
NOTE: Two important sidenotes I felt would feel awkward included in my review; one, Life is Sweet is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through The Criterion Collection, a too-often overlooked film-distribution company outside of the film community that is committed to releasing American film works of considerable quality and significance along with exceptional films of the world. They've released yet another masterful film that may've gone unseen had they not exist.
The other note I have is a question to viewers about Wendy, the mother of the picture. Throughout the film, I noticed her hair turn gray, specifically during the scene when her and Nicola have a meaningful heart-to-heart. I'm curious - is her hair dyed for effect or a result or breakneck improvisation?
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Alison Steadman, Claire Skinner, Jane Horrocks, Stephen Rea, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, and Moya Brady. Directed by: Mike Leigh.