Life Is Sweet
+ Q&A with Mike Leigh

UK, 1990, 103 mins
Director: Mike Leigh

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

Life is Sweet takes food and family as its central themes. Released in 1991, like other films of that year, including The Commitments and London Kills Me, it focuses on young people and follows characters making the best of difficult situations.

In keeping with Leigh’s customary technique of rehearsal and improvisation with his cast, the actors were introduced to their characters’ real life counterparts – a married couple in Enfield, a female plumber, twins and Arsenal supporters. In the film, facets of the characters are gradually exposed through a number of different situations and arguments. Leigh has explained that he ‘wants to see people in films as they actually are,’ and it is in this capturing of small detail that the film excels, offering a celebration of the ordinary and everyday.

No single character from the central family dominates the film – even in group scenes, the shooting and editing force the viewer to consider different points of view. The characters are portrayed from different perspectives – we see them as individuals, children and parents, girlfriend and boyfriend, husband and wife and adult friends both at work and at leisure. It is through these interactions that their identities are formed and, in a move away from Leigh’s previous work, these different perspectives don’t contribute to a simple conclusion. Similarly the open ending doesn’t impose a definitive reading of events.

The film also depicts the claustrophobia of domestic life, with much of the action played out in the family home – indeed, Nicola (Jane Horrocks) never leaves the house – while the hot weather contributes to this stifled feeling. Several camera shots looking out through windows increase this sense of enclosure.

Food forms a central part of the film, from the parallel – yet poles apart – chefs of Andy (Jim Broadbent) and Aubrey (Timothy Spall) to the focus point provided by family meals, while through Nicola, the film provides a rare on-screen depiction of bulimia.
Lucy Skipper, BFI Screenonline, screenonline.org.uk

A contemporary review
Wendy and Andy seem at first a tiresome couple. They echo each other’s nervous laughter; her cheeriness is matched by his compliance; he idles, she indulges him. Conversation is often a badminton rally of clichés. They are ordinary; nothing particular has happened to them – or perhaps ever will. They married when she was 16 because they had to. He is trapped in a job he hates. Yet in the end they are both singular and memorable. Their lives have a touch of heroism. Wendy and Andy cease to be caricatures thanks chiefly to two short off-setting scenes. On Monday morning, after a weekend of loafing, Andy strides through his kitchen with the air of the complete professional. He cracks a real barbed joke. Despite his feelings, he does his job properly. Work is serious; he comes abruptly, almost shockingly to life.

The second scene is the climactic confrontation. Mother and daughter open their hearts and Wendy for the first time tells Nicola that self-starvation came close to killing her when she was in hospital as a teenager. In a few sentences we know all about Wendy and Andy and their children. Wendy has made the best of things; there have been sacrifices she has never mentioned; the caravan may be a heap, but it nevertheless represents something; she and Andy don’t hate Nicola, they love her. In a sense, what Wendy has to say is no more than what one would expect her to say, and is as much a cliché as her infuriating use of the word ‘little’ (as in ‘Have a little cup of tea’), but it is delivered with such distilled concentration that it’s impossible to ignore. Alison Steadman, the director Mike Leigh’s most practised actress, is well attuned to such scenes; but Jane Horrocks, as the farouche Nicola, rises to the moment with equal intensity.

A Mike Leigh forte is the sudden stab of emotion, the blurted statement of confessional truth. Here, for example, Aubrey’s blunt plea to Wendy on the bistro’s disastrous opening night: he can barely stand up and seems on the point of being violently ill, but still his cry from the heart rings pathetically true. In Life Is Sweet, however, the moments of silence have equal force: Natalie sitting in bed, leafing through a brochure, imagining the United States, which she is saving up to visit. New York, Chicago, New Orleans – she only wants to see the interesting places; Wendy can’t understand why she doesn’t want to visit Disneyland. There is a determination about Natalie, beautifully played by Claire Skinner, which makes her both memorable and admirable. In the final scene, before the camera pulls back and up into the sky, Natalie sits with her sister in the door of their father’s garden shed and in an unaffected, understated exchange – she, too, has done some pretty nasty things, putting her hand down lavatories – begins the healing task of reconciliation.

The singularity of Life Is Sweet, however, is that it has no moral and is just as much about its incidentals – Mike Leigh listed more than a hundred of them in the catalogue of the 1990 London Film Festival – as its theme of the endurance of the ordinary family. It is fascinated, in a rather horrified way, with the gross, farcical Aubrey (Timothy Spall) and his theme bistro, with its stuffed cat’s head on the wall and its bicycle and plastic onions in the window. Aubrey has no sooner skinned a boiled lamb’s tongue than he is poking his own tongue into the ear of Paula, his mesmerised dogsbody, who then topples sideways on to his orthopaedic bed in curious slow motion. Then there is Patsy (Stephen Rea), slowly sliding off his barstool, ever the quiet, professional drunk whose dog-eared, dog-like charm is quite lost on everyone except Andy and, of course, the tolerant Wendy.
John Pym, Monthly Film Bulletin, March 1991

Directed by: Mike Leigh
©: Channel Four Television Company
Production Companies: Thin Man Films, Film Four International
Presented by: British Screen
Produced by: Simon Channing-Williams
Production Supervisor: Lorraine Goodman
Production Co-ordinator: Deborah Harding
Production Accountants: William Tyler, Juanita Parker
Location Manager: Peter Tullo
Producer’s Assistant: Lynne Cruddas
Production Runners: James Bloom, Nicholas Shaw
1st Assistant Director: Gus Maclean
2nd Assistant Director: Simon Moseley
3rd Assistant Directors: David Gilchrist, Hedda Moore
Script Supervisors: Heather Storr, Joan Atkinson
Casting Director: Sue Whatmough
Written by: Mike Leigh
Director of Photography: Dick Pope
Lighting by: Film Lighting Services
Camera Operator: Dick Pope
Focus Puller: Garry Turnbull
Clapper Loader: Lucy Bristow
Gaffer: John Parsons
Best Boy: Martin Duncan
Electrician: Dave Owen
Genny Operator: Len O’Brian
Camera Grip: Jay Williams
Additional Stills: Jon Gardey
Stills Photography: Simon Mein
Thin Man Logo Design: Eve Stewart
Standby Rigger: Bill Howe
Jobfit Trainee: Fiona Walsh
Edited by: Jon Gregory
First Assistant Editors: Stephen Evans, Jackie Vance
Post-production: De Lane Lea Sound Centre
Production Designer: Alison Chitty
Art Director: Sophie Becher
Art Department Assistant: Deborah Wilson
Production Buyer: Trisha Edwards
Property Master: David Balfour
Standby Props: Steve Wheeler
Dressing Props: Piero Jamieson, Pat Harkins
Construction Manager: Ken Marples
Standby Painter: Bob Starrett
Standby Carpenter: Kevin Hoar
Costume Designer: Lindy Hemming
Assistant Costume Designer: Debbie Scott
Wardrobe Supervisor: Anthony Black
Make-up/Hair: Carolyne Walsh, Chris Blundell
Titles: Chris Allies, Peerless Camera Company
Originated on: Agfa Colour Film, Metrocolor (London)
Music by: Rachel Portman, Julian Wastall
Song ‘Happy Holidays’ by: Rachel Portman
Conductor: David Snell
Music Recorded at: CTS Studios (Wembley)
Sound Recordist: Malcolm Hirst
Jobfit Trainee: Jaya Bishop
Sound Engineer: Dick Lewzey
Boom Operator: Andrew Morris
Sound Re-recording: Peter Maxwell
Dubbing Mixer: Penny Woolley
Sound Editor: Sue Baker
Dubbing Editor: Peter Maxwell
Assistant Dubbing Editor: Sue Baker
Foley Adviser: Sandy Garfield
Foley Editor: Julian Rodd
Stunt Arranger: Peter Brayham
Publicity: Carolyne Jardine Publicity
Unit Driver: Phil Allchin
Camera Equipment: Joe Dunton Cameras
Catering: J & J Film Foods
Food Adviser: Sandy Garfield

Alison Steadman (Wendy)
Jim Broadbent (Andy)
Timothy Spall (Aubrey)
Claire Skinner (Natalie)
Jane Horrocks (Nicola)
David Thewlis (Nicola’s lover)
Moya Brady (Paula)
Stephen Rea (Patsy)
David Neilson (Steve)
Harriet Thorpe (customer)
Paul Trussel (chef)
Jack Thorpe Baker (Nigel)

UK 1990©
103 mins


Bleak Moments
Mon 18 Oct 20:40; Thu 28 Oct 18:00
Nuts in May
Wed 20 Oct 18:00; Sun 31 Oct 11:20 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Alison Steadman, Roger Sloman, Anthony O’Donnell, Stephen Bill and Sheila Kelley)
The Kiss of Death + The Permissive Society
Sat 23 Oct 12:50
Hard Labour
Sat 23 Oct 15:10
Sun 24 Oct 14:50 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Sally Hawkins, Alexis Zegerman and Kate O’Flynn);
Mon 15 Nov 20:40
Sun 24 Oct 18:00 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh,
Marion Bailey and Phil Daniels); Thu 11 Nov 20:45
Secrets & Lies
Mon 25 Oct 14:30; Sat 6 Nov 19:00 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh); Sat 27 Nov 15:00
Abigail’s Party
Tue 26 Oct 20:50; Sun 14 Nov 12:00 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh)
High Hopes
Thu 28 Oct 14:30; Tue 2 Nov 18:45 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Ruth Sheen and Phil Davis); Thu 11 Nov 18:00; Sat 20 Nov 20:30
Life Is Sweet
Tue 28 Oct 17:50 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh);
Thu 4 Nov 18:15; Tue 23 Nov 20:50
Grown-Ups + The Short and Curlies
Sat 30 Oct 17:15 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh);
Tue 30 Nov 14:15
Home Sweet Home
Mon 1 Nov 17:50 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh);
Sat 6 Nov 11:45
All or Nothing
Wed 3 Nov 20:30; Wed 10 Nov 20:30; Sun 21 Nov 17:10 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Lesley Manville and Marion Bailey)
Career Girls
Fri 5 Nov 20:50; Fri 12 Nov 18:15; Tue 23 Nov 18:00 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh)
Vera Drake
Fri 12 Nov 20:40; Fri 26 Nov 17:40 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis)
Sun 14 Nov 17:30 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh and
Jim Broadbent); Sun 28 Nov 17:40
Another Year
Fri 19 Nov 17:30 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville); Mon 29 Nov 20:30
Four Days in July
Sat 20 Nov 11:50 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh and
Bríd Brennan); Wed 24 Nov 14:15
Sat 20 Nov 16:20 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh);
Mon 29 Nov 17:40
Mr. Turner
Sun 21 Nov 13:10 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Marion Bailey and Dorothy Atkinson); Sat 27 Nov 17:30
Who’s Who + A Sense of History + A Running Jump
Sat 30 Nov 14:00

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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