Mike Leigh’s third feature film Life Is Sweet was released in 1990 and remains one of his finest pieces of work. A life-affirming tragi-comedy, at its heart it’s about the triers who want to make the best of their lot.
Mike Leigh has a tendency throughout his work to leave audiences wondering what might happen next. It’s an intriguing quirk, one that enhances his naturalistic approach (in that our life stories take place without a predestined narrative) whilst it gives us something to ponder, discuss and take apart after the credits have rolled. It gives each of his films an enduring quality, one that inspires repeat viewings to re-experience these characters’ lives and perhaps have a better understanding of where their personal journeys are heading.
Life is Sweet is one of the prime examples of this. Leigh’s third theatrical film follows the exploits of a working class North London family and a few of their friends during one summer. Each member of the family gets some of the spotlight with the focus centering on Dad Andy’s entrepreneurial endeavours, daughter Nicola’s battle with an eating disorder and her self-defeating reluctance to seek employment, and Mum Wendy’s matriarchal battle to keep the family unit functioning while seeking her own personal ventures.
Nicola’s struggle becomes most prominent, not least because of Jane Horrocks’ brilliantly raw, fragile, slightly off-kilter performance but because her attitude, built upon a pseudo liberal intellectualism, is at odds with her family and their friends who are more willing to make the best of their lot in life. For example, her twin sister Natalie (Claire Skinner) is the exact opposite of Nicola; she appears content in her work as a plumber, has a composed serenity about life and takes on everyday dramas with a level, considered head. Nicola’s unemployment is compounded by her bulimia and self-destructive isolation. Unwilling to seek help or talk about her troubles, she becomes more argumentative and withdrawn. This all suggests Leigh’s title “Life is Sweet” is both ironic and a kind of simple parable.
It isn’t surprising to acknowledge Nicola’s scenes as the most powerful, particularly a striking shot of Natalie listening to her sister make herself sick from the next room and Nicola’s strange fetish for sex and chocolate when her boyfriend, played by a young David Thewlis, comes to visit. But that isn’t to say the other characters’ journeys are not similarly interesting as Andy (Jim Broadbent) pursues a dream to open a mobile fast-food kitchen, and Wendy (Alison Steadman) goes to work for friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall) with disastrous, and hilarious, results at the ill-fated opening of his new Parisian restaurant.
It is a summer of contrasts between those willing to try and, perhaps, fail, and Nicola. Life isn’t necessarily “sweet” but it can be, and sometimes that can be governed by our attitude towards it. In the film this is best exampled by Andy’s jolly happy-go-lucky enthusiasm and Wendy’s motherly efforts to do the best for her family and others. The lack of finality to each of their story arcs is telling because, like the characters realise themselves, life is what we make of it. “Life” is, therefore, as “sweet” as we want it to be.