Life is Sweet (1990): The Reasons to Live and to Dream

Life is Sweet

       “Life is Sweet” is a fascinating drama and exploration of a poor family in Northern London. It gives us great character dynamics, comments on social issues in a subtle way and shows that the members of a family aren’t one dimensional. It’s a powerful movie and definitely a favorite. I’ll get more into the details in the assessment.

    “Life is Sweet” was directed by Mike Leigh, who also wrote the screenplay and produced by Simon Channing Williams.

      The story takes place over summer as situations arise and change for the characters. From Andy the husband (Jim Broadbent) buying a beat down trailer to sell food from on weekends, to the wife Wendy (Alison Steadman) helping her creepy friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall) who is opening up a bad French restaurant. Around this time their daughter Nicola (Jane Horrocks) is a shut in while her other daughter Natalie (Claire Skinner) is a plumber and is the only one of them happy. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The World – The lives of the characters feel lived in and real. From Andy going to work at the large restaurant where he’s the head chef, to Aubrey’s house and restaurant and right outside the home of the family. It doesn’t feel artificial or fake in any way which lends power to the situations.

Andy – Jim Broadbent is a great actor and this may be the best role I’ve seen him in so far. He was the Psychiatrist in “Filth” and Professor Slughorn in “Harry Potter,” but in this he is a completely likable character. He’s an idealist who is easily used by a “friend” who continues to sell him things that are poor quality such as the food truck. He hates his job though and more than anything wants to cook doing something he loves. What changes things in the end for his character though is when he slips on a spoon at work. This finishes his character arc as the family takes care of him and he finally looks inward at himself.

Wendy – Alison Steadman plays a character who would be my favorite if not for Natalie and her laugh. Wendy laughs a lot and it gets a bit grating. You can see why she does it too as she finds herself in a lot of awkward social situations and it her way of getting through them. From Aubrey hitting on her at his restaurant to when they visit his home and he’s being awkward all over the place. She is a character who knows how powerless she feels so she does what she can to change it by fighting. When Aubrey hits on her when drunk, she leaves…when her daughter tries to blame her for how miserable she is, she stands up to her too and says that she truly wants her family to be happy, which is why she accepted Andy buying the Food Truck and Natalie being a plumber. In both cases she didn’t like it at first, but their happiness was more important. Her love as a mother really comes through and you get that she takes the brunt of the hardship in most social situations.

Nicola – Nicola is the character facing most of the drama in the film. From her relationship issues with her unnamed boyfriend, to her dropping out of college and trying to find a purpose in life and joy. She is the activist only in name as she calls herself a feminist but only wears the shirts (Down with the Poll Tax) and when her mother calls her out on her lack of action in relation to her beliefs she is left rethinking it at the end. The same occurs with her boyfriend who wants to be in relationship with her truly where there relationship when we first meet them is all physical. She’s isolated, alone and in denial for most of the film but comes around when Natalie reaches out to her and they decide they’ll face finding the answers together and that everyone is weird so that shouldn’t be an issue in finding happiness.

Natalie – Natalie has the clearest head out of all of them and is most comfortable in herself. She is androgynous in appearance and enjoys hanging with the guys and working as a plumber. This is in contrast to everyone else who at least superficially is putting up appearances. From her father Andy who is doing it so he won’t feel alone, to their mother who puts up with crap from a horrible friend out of responsibility she feels. She is wholly comfortable in herself and the most stable member of the family. I really liked her character and how she spoke what was always on her mind clearly. This was a contrast to Nicola who tried to obfuscate whatever was on her mind throughout the film. Claire Skinner did an amazing job.

Critique of Capitalism – The director is a socialist and was at one point an anarchist and it comes out in the film. From Andy just being a cog in the machine and his wanting to be an individual owning his own place as only a pipe dream…to Nicola trying to consume to feel better but it only making her sick and Aubrey with his restaurant where inside it looks good but how he had none of the financial backing or contacts. He’s a man completely alone so who would show up even if the food is good? It was subtle and I enjoyed how the director did it, since any philosophy deserves to be critiqued.

Feminism – There were some feminist views I saw in the film as well that came out in a very good way. From showing why Aubrey is a bad guy due to his assuming that married Wendy and his waitresses past and present should sleep with him because he’s “Such a great guy,” to the conversation between Nicola and her boyfriend which quickly turns to him insulting her rather than him clearly calling up issues. This was done really well as neither of them were sympathetic characters though still very human.

The Writing – The writing is top notch. The dialogue is quick character have chemistry and every scene has action that develops characters and character conflict further. Mike Leigh really did a fantastic job on the screenplay.

Okay: Aubrey – Timothy Spall plays a creeper and he does a good job at it. The problem was he isn’t written as complex as he should be. Why does he live alone? What made him believe he’s a good cook? This isn’t even going into the creep factor, these are just basic character questions. He still did a good job but these issues still stand.

The Soundtrack – Not very memorable at all. Didn’t remember it after watching the film.

The Cons: Nicola’s Boyfriend – We know he’s upper middle class and acts privileged but that’s about it. I would have liked to know him and his character motivations better as well. He has less to go off than Aubrey as well.

    This was a film that was true to it’s description as a tragi-comedy or dark comedy but it also was a very good drama and had quick witty writing. It makes bigger points but does them in such a way that an audience can take what it wants to out of the film, though the critiques and views are there. This was a film that I would definitely recommend and a favorite and I was glad a friend recommended it to me.

Final Score: 9.3 / 10.  Only brought down because some of the side characters weren’t as explored as they could have been and the music was nothing special.

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