Mike Leigh worked with his relatively small cast (five main cast members and about four supporting cast members), improvising characters, devising scenarios and plots, and came up with this; one of his earliest masterpieces.
The plot is simple enough. A couple of days in the life of a working class London family. There isn't really a plot as such. A couple of fairly deep issues are dealt with, such as eating disorders and depression, but other than a few moments, all we are doing is watching a family live their life: a strong hard-working mother (Alison Steadman); a weaker easily-led by his mates father (Jim Broadbent); and their twin daughters: Natalie (Claire Skinner) - resourceful and kind-hearted but with a strange tendency to wear men's shirts and down pints - and Nicola (Jane Horrocks) - screwed up, rude, irrational and painfully insecure in both her looks and her intelligence.
The performances brought out by this form of filmmaking are superb - as they are in all of Leigh's movies (Secrets & Lies, Career Girls and All Or Nothing are all worthy of viewing, but especially Secrets & Lies). However, Alison Steadman is the standout (perhaps for no other reason than she has the most screen time), the driving force that brings all the family together. The scene in which she finally cracks and loses that nervous laugh to tell Nicola a few home truths and break down the barriers that Nicola has put up between herself and the rest of the world, is so beautifully written and terrifically performed that it is a shame that Steadman in particular was not Oscar-nominated.
Only one or two criticisms struck me. One was a slight lack of development of the other daughter. What exactly DOES make her tick? Am I merely stereotyping by assuming she is supposed to be a lesbian? Or is she just happy being so masculine in her dress-sense and mannerisms - (she isn't even offended by a client who calls her a 'good lad')? We never find out, because the film focuses a little more on her sister. It certainly appears that her mother suspects her daughter of being gay, but for some reason the subject is never brought up.
Similarly, a couple of loose ends are never tied up. The caravan and the restaurant in particular. But I guess we have the prerogative to make our own endings up haven't we, so that's a good thing in many ways.
I think at the end of the day, people will either like all of Mike Leigh's films or none of them. And I'm in the former group. His work is beautiful and always touching.