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Sometimes the best movies...
cwej114 March 2004
...are the small ones.

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.
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heartbreakingly real...
itspoop19 November 2006
this is another one of those movies that i loved so much the first time i saw it, i cried in the theater, went home, came back the next day with a friend in tow.

unlike the other movies i did this with (raising Arizona, after hours), the person i saw it with actually got the movie the first time, and loved it as much as i did. yes, naked and Topsy turvy got all the praise, but this is my favorite Leigh movie. it is just so...sweet.

i would talk about this movie years after seeing it saying that it was so heartbreakingly real, if you cut the screen, it would bleed. the was something so compelling about everyone in this movie. someone said they were pathetic, but i couldn't say i saw it like that. they were just flawed people doing the best they could. to me that is so beautiful. for years i would wish that America had a real working class director like mike Leigh. someone who showed people struggling. we need it so very badly, as the aftermath of Katrina can attest to. we forget our poor over here.

the funniest thing was i wold watch this movie when i got depressed, and it made me feel less alone. it cheered me up.
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"Aubrey's in a coma, he doesn't want any chips!"
andyfennessy24 January 2003
A superb example of Mike Leigh's directing method - working with his actors, many of them regulars, making up most of the script as they go along.

No falling empires or coveted magical rings here, just the small victories and tiny despairs of everyday life - Timothy Spall's ridiculous restaurant ("Liver in Lager"??), Jane Horrocks' eating disorder and general estrangement from the world, Jim Broadbent and his grimy little burger van, Clair Skinner's endearingly sensible tomboy plumber... all exquisite little portraits. Best of all is Alison Steadman as the suburban Earth-mother trying to hold it all together.

It shows, above all, that a great film can be about anything really, as long as the direction, acting and script is of this calibre. Ben Hur, it ain't!

Absolutely marvelous - 9/10.
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I know these people
Tony Walton10 May 2003
Another reviewer has commented that this could be a fly-on-the-wall documentary rather than fiction. That hits the nail right on the head. I live some 5 miles from Enfield (where Life is Sweet was filmed) and this is completely true to life. No car chases, no martial artists, no expensive explosions, just life going on and (in the main) being fairly sweet. Everybody knows a Patsy who has a "little deal", everybody knows families like this one, everybody knows an Aubrey who never *quite* makes it. Mike Leigh knows what he's talking about, and it's enough to make a highly enjoyable movie that's worth seeing many times. I don't fancy Aubrey's "Saveloy on a bed of Lychees", though!
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Darren-1223 November 2000
I often fantasise about directing a movie (yes, I know I'm sad!), and I would like to think that my movies would come out like Mike Leigh's: affectionate without being sentimental, funny without crossing over into out-and-out comedy, realistic without being bleak or depressing.

This portrayal of an "ordinary" English family is everything a film ought to be. Great acting - Alison Steadman in particular - her character's relentless optimism and cheerfulness interspersed with knowing when a situation needs to be treated more seriously; Jim Broadbent as the day-dreaming father and Jane Horrocks as the anorexic Nicola. All the characters are beautifully drawn, including the minor characters (Timothy Spall as doomed chef Aubrey, Stephen Rea as dodgy-dealer Patsy, David Thewlis as Nicola's unnamed lover).

Some typical Leigh scenes include the excellently framed shot of the burger-van in the scrapyard (which could almost be a painting!), and the panning shot along the back of the row of houses (implying that similar dramas are unfolding in everyone's lives).

Not much actually happens, but that's part of the point - it takes in themes of happiness, hopes and dreams, friendship and family ties. Clearly a precursor to "Secrets And Lies", this is a simpler, purer film, but with the same message of ultimate optimism.
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bill-46120 March 2001
I'm starting to think that Mike Leigh could make a story about

boring people (like me) posting reviews online and make it and

them interesting. I don't think I'm being overly sentimental when I

say that, sometimes we need films that show us that, on the

whole, people are good and trying to do the best they can in a

difficult world. I don't see many directors who are willing to show

us flawed characters who fight through difficulties with heart and

humor and work things out without the aid of some ridiculous

device. Leigh is brave enough, creative enough and has enough

respect for his audience to show us, in Life is Sweet, that

sometimes caring and patience with those we love is our only

chance and what we are generally stuck with anyway.
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Unpretentious but unforgettable domestic drama.
icon-75 September 1999
This unpredictable and hard-hitting film follows the lives of the fascinating characters who make up a lower-middle-class family. A character-based story, there really isn't a plot, as there isn't a plot in our everyday lives, but it is all the more interesting for that.

The parents are amicable beings: the mother Wendy a chirpy, motherly character (very well-acted), the father incredibly laid-back, yet hard-working at a job he hates. Their two daughters are like chalk and cheese: Natalie, a plumber, is quiet and practical (I thought she was a boy at first: hers is a curiously unsexed character) while Nicola is a complete mess.

The ugliness of true life is shown beside its mundane beauty. The shocking scenes of Nicola's self-torture (she is a secret bulimic) are juxtaposed with scenes of the mother dusting, and the ordinary cheerfulness of the rest of the family. A bizarre family friend, Aubrey, and his dream of running his own restaurant provide a subplot of sorts, but the domestic drama is far more interesting.

Horricks gives a startling good performance as the disturbed Nicola: she drips with self-loathing, but inspires pity. The most poignant scene is one in which her boyfriend, no Einstein himself, becomes fed up with her intense sexual demands, and asks her to prove her intelligence by having a real conversation with him. Nicola, whom we know is intelligent, cannot bring herself to do this: she is compelled to always show herself in the worst light. She can only mutter 'I AM intelligent' in a voice of despair. The boyfriend departs, leaving her in a state of even more intense self-hatred and depression. It is hard-hitting scenes like this one which stick in the memory.

The mother, Wendy, who appears a scatterbrain at first, emerges as a dignified, wise and compassionate woman, as she responds in a touching scene to her troubled daughter Nicola.

It's such a plain-looking film, yet it is striking because of the intensity of its characters, and the honesty of director Mike Leigh's observations. Although life is hard for the family, it is also sweet. That, I think, is Leigh's message.
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Best film of the year
dgtoneyjr19 September 2001
What can I say that previous fans of this movie have not said yet? I think that Mike Leigh is the best filmmaker working today. So, I won't bother rehashing the story line.

I am convinced even thinking back to 1991, when it was released in the US, that Life is Sweet was the best of that year. That year was remembered more for, among others, Schindler's List, The Remains of the Day and The Piano.

Alison Steadman seemingly insensitive lighthearted outlook on the world -laughing after nearly every sentence she or others utter, which incredibly I never tired of (an amazing feat), is all just her way of dealing with life. She sees it for what it is. The scene where she explains to her daughter Nicola how much of a sacrifice that she and her husband have made for the sake of their family is one of the most touching I have seen between a mother and daughter. I felt as though I was eaves-dropping while watching it. What a pleasure!
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sublime - but qualification criteria may well apply
robt1354 February 2005
Just one of those films that is subjectively sublime. Honestly portrayed people just doing stuff and some of it going wrong and some of it going OK. Not sneering but celebrating a certain way of life, and so becoming a celebration of all our lives - maybe this borders into objectivity?

Funny and joyful - with what could pass as tragedy, but still funny. Plenty of the inter-personal stuff that is so often missed in pursuit of consensus cinema. The actors just appear like people that are just there - not acting but just doing things.

Reminded me of crying with laughter after getting caught putting dog-dirt (maybe not familiar with that term?) in my Grandad's petrol tank on the estate - kind of thing - like I say - subjective.
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A sublime slice of ordinary life from Mike Leigh
andrew-traynor19 September 2003
A sublime slice of ordinary life from Mike Leigh. He takes us through 5 days in the life of a London family: Jim Broadbent, Alison Steadman and their twin daughters Claire Skinner and Jane Horrox. What follows is by turns touching, hilarious and unsettling. Leigh is often compared to Ken Loach, but Loach deals with unspeakably grim and often melodramatic scenarios. The far more impressive gift of Leigh is to make tales from the apparently unremarkable. So many touches run true here; Steadman doing a little dance to herself alone in the kitchen, Broadbent and Stephen Rea drunkenly reciting the Spurs Double side, Skinner describing an arthritic old woman met on her plumbing round. And the tragedy of the film is also unveiled naturally and feels horribly believable.

The performances are also astonishing. Broadbent and Steadman, both distinctive actors, can descend into parody but here are just hugely enjoyable. Skinner is nicely deadpan but the star is Horrox, playing a twitching wreck of a girl who mainly communicates in one word insults. Little wonder she's been given so many chances to prove her talents subsequently, just a shame she's never taken them. The only false note is Tim Spall as a manic chef. Perhaps that's because he's simply put in for comic value (he was far better in Leigh's 'Secrets and Lies'), his character given none of the depth which lights up the rest of the film.
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Family Values
James Hitchcock12 November 2010
Mike Leigh is one of the true independent auteurs in the British film industry, and one of the few major British directors who has not allowed himself to be seduced away by Hollywood. His films, generally based on modern urban English working-class or middle-class life, concentrate more on character than on action and have a very distinctive style which arises out of his equally distinctive method of working, based upon allowing a story to emerge through improvisation, rehearsals and discussions with his cast before shooting actually begins. He generally uses a select group of actors, including Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall and his one-time wife Alison Steadman.

Broadbent, Spall and Steadman all appear in "Life Is Sweet", a comedy based upon the lives of a family from the North London suburb of Enfield- father Andy, mother Wendy and their 22-year-old twin daughters Natalie and Nicola. Andy works as a chef, but hates his job and harbours ambitions of running his own business. He has bought a dilapidated fast-food van which, at some unspecified future date, he intends to clean and restore in order to start up a fast-food business, but has not taken any further steps towards realising his goal. Another major character is Andy's friend Aubrey, another chef, who has taken his own entrepreneurial ambitions a stage further by opening his own French restaurant named "The Regret Rien" after the Edith Piaf song.

Like a number of British film-makers from the eighties and early nineties, Leigh made his films from an essentially left-wing position and was critical of the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. "Life is Sweet", which appeared in the last year of her premiership, can be seen as a veiled satire on the cult of the entrepreneur which flourished under Thatcherism and on the tendency to see business, both big and small, as the sole key to national success. The characters of Andy and Aubrey are well contrasted. Andy is a competent chef but lacks the drive to become a successful independent businessman; his ambitions never seem to amount to much more than vague daydreams. As Wendy says, he has "two speeds, slow and stop".

Aubrey, by contrast, is a man whose inordinate faith in his own abilities is matched only by an incompetence which will surely doom his business career to failure. Much of the humour derives from the bizarre nouvelle cuisine dishes he takes a perverse pleasure in devising. (Saveloy on a bed of lychees, anyone?) When Aubrey's business does not work out as well as he hoped he takes refuge in alcohol.

The film is as much about Andy's home life as his work life, if not more so. His two daughters, although twins, are completely unlike both in looks and in character. Natalie, crop-haired and chunky, is a tomboy who works as a plumber and spends her leisure time playing pool and drinking with her male workmates. Nicola, who is unemployed, is extremely thin, a sufferer from bulimia and a chain-smoker. Whereas Natalie is relatively placid, Nicola is neurotic, bitter, foul-tempered and much given to hurling abuse at her family and acquaintances. She claims to believe in various left-wing causes- "capitalist!" is her favourite insult for her father because of his business ambitions- but never does anything active to further them. Natalie does not appear to have any romantic interests in her life- none of her male drinking chums count as boyfriends, and although some have seen her as a stereotypically "butch" lesbian, she has no girlfriends either. Nicola, by contrast, has an active sex life, although a rather odd one- she likes her rather reluctant boyfriend to smear chocolate spread over her chest.

The two acting performances which really stand out come from Spall as Aubrey- a brilliant comic creation- and Jane Horrocks as Nicola, an equally brilliant tragi-comic one. The film is, however, really an good example of ensemble acting, and there are also great contributions from Steadman as Wendy and Broadbent as Andy.

With its general theme of frustrated ambition and a character as unbalanced as Nicola, "Life is Sweet" could easily have been made as a tragedy. Yet that title is not meant ironically. Leigh might not be a large-C Conservative, but this film suggests that he is a small-c conservative when it comes to family values, and the film is very much about family life. For all their eccentricities, the family at the centre of "Life is Sweet" is not intended to be portrayed as a dysfunctional one. It is a family that functions, although in ways that outsiders might perceive as strange. The sensible, steadfast Wendy and Andy, who beneath some surface peculiarities is a deeply caring man, have an unconditional love for their daughters. They are prepared to make allowances for Nicola's behaviour, which is the result of emotional insecurities rather than spitefulness or malevolence. "We don't hate you! We bloody love you, you stupid girl!" (We learn that Wendy got pregnant with the twins as an unmarried teenager but refused to have an abortion because of a belief in the sanctity of life).

After all the storms, the film ends on a note of calm and hopefulness. This is one of the most distinctive, and one of the best, British social comedies from the early nineties. 8/10
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The kind of life I observe
Steve Pulaski22 January 2014
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.
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a good introduction for newcomers to Mike Leigh
Michael Neumann1 December 2010
British director Mike Leigh presents yet another optimistically titled working-class comedy, set in a humdrum suburban London neighborhood where life, at times is anything but sweet. The film showcases Leigh's pre-occupation with (typically British) dysfunctional family life: dad's an underachiever; mum's a working housewife; but both are able to maintain remarkably high spirits after raising twin teenage daughters, one a demure apprentice plumber and the other an anti-social, bulimic, post-punk dropout. Except for a lack of political criticism the film could almost be a matching bookend to Leigh's previous 'High Hopes'. Both films share a sense of humor rooted in the director's keen observations of daily life at its lowest common denominator, with a story drawn around simple, memorable characters created (as in every Mike Leigh movie) by the entire cast before a script was even written.
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Another Great Film from Mike Leigh
elfry8218 November 1998
Mike Leigh treats us to another masterpiece with Life is Sweet, a superb tale of about 4 days in the life of a family in upper-lower-middle class England. Actors in this film really show their full range when scenes go from powerful to hilarious.
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A real gem
David29 March 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I've only seen Life is Sweet twice—first when it came out fifteen years ago and again just last night. The last fifteen years certainly haven't dimmed my memory about what a wonderful movie this is.

It's funny that the only two people in this critics' forum who don't like the movie are American. I'm not American-bashing, but many American films have the big names, pretty faces and lots of explosions. You generally won't find these in a Mike Leigh movie. Instead you'll find wonderful stories, great characters and perfect acting (I could watch Jim Broadbent make toast and reading the morning newspaper).

For some reason this movie really resonated with me over the years and I remembered so many little details that spoke volumes. The Decalogue, for example. Mike Leigh's movies are brilliant in terms of Decalogue (Jim Broadbent's "That is an evil spoon" has to be one of the greatest lines in cinema history).

Life is Sweet isn't a happy movie, but it is a joy to watch.
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"All in the Family" English style
George Parker30 August 2002
"Life is Sweet" meanders purposelessly from comedy into drama as it tells of a chapter in the life of an English family of four. On the up side, the film conjures up some funny moments mostly from its many quirky characters as it drifts into increasingly serious moments of drama. On the downside, the version I Tivo'd was technically inferior with muddled sound, poor quality video, no closed captions, and didn't end as much as it just quit leaving too many questions unanswered. Overall, "Life is Sweet" is a good attempt which ultimately fails to deliver in spite of its excellent cast, numerous awards, and modest critical acclaim. (C+)
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bitter-sweet more like...
Marty-G15 March 1999
Mike Leigh again shows a depth of characterisation in his movies that surpasses even the most revered of directors. "Life is Sweet" can make you laugh out loud at times, but underneath it all is this incredible blackness. These are three-dimensional characters. You feel they have a past and a future, you can see their quirks and foibles, and they are not glossed over. At times this is demanding viewing, these people are meant to irritate you... but people do in real life. So though it's not exactly escapist, some may unfairly conclude it doesn't entertain, but it still makes for compulsive viewing. You believe in these people, you want to them to sort themselves out. They are hopeless sometimes, yet underneath have such sensitivity, and it's not often a director can pull out such complexities as well as Mike Leigh can. This is a film that is in turns very funny, occasionally grating, emotionally charged, irritating and fascinating. When a film can provoke such a variety of emotions in its viewers, then it is definitely onto a good thing.
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Pretty typical (meaning really good) Leigh, but Horrocks raises it to another level
zetes10 November 2013
In most ways, this is your typical Mike Leigh movie. It's very nice and charming and has great characters. It doesn't really go anywhere, but it's extremely enjoyable all the same. This one has a performance, though, that, for me, put it a cut above his usual product. Jane Horrocks as a depressed, bundle-of-nerves bulimic just absolutely blew me away. In a lot of ways, it's capital A acting, but, God, you can feel such a deep vein of hurt under the more obvious mannerisms. The story here involves a lower middle class family, mother Alison Steadman and father Jim Broadbent and daughters Horrocks and Claire Skinner. Broadbent is a chef but wants to run his own food truck. Their friend Timothy Spall opens a new French restaurant and Steadman agrees to waitress for him. It turns out to be a total disaster. Stephen Rea and David Thewlis (who kills in a very small part; it would win him the lead in Leigh's follow-up, Naked) co-star. Horrocks brought me to tears. I couldn't stop crying for like a half hour afterward, so deeply had she gotten to me.
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Character performance goldmine
Framescourer19 November 2008
Mike Leigh gold. This small-scale film might look like an average suburban character drama but it's far too rich. The rough trajectory sees the easy-going couple weathering a social whirl of oddballs trying and invariably failing to make something happen in their uneventful life. It's a soap opera without the melodrama.

So to the performances which are all world-class, no joke. Easiest to overlook is the sublime Claire Skinner as Natalie, an apprentice plumber enduring nervous taunts about her sexuality. Off in the corner of the sitting room is the Gollum-like Nicola, an anti-Natalie who manages to find the comic light in an otherwise grotesquely sybaritic relationship with bulimia and David Thewlis. Timothy Spall creates the most pathetic individual I can remember in a film and consequently a man whose failure may turn out to be his greatest achievement. Bizarre but rewarding. 7/10
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Memorized by the extraordinariness of the ordinary.
joe-21322 January 1999
"Memorized by the extraordinariness of the ordinary." Saw it twice, can't wait to see it again.

(Not for the average american veiwing audience)
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in brief: being alive itself should be sweet, whether it always is or not
MisterWhiplash3 August 2017
The first question is: is the title ironic or sincere? I think for Leigh there's not an ironic bone in his body, and this is despite (or maybe because?) of the fact that his film, like many of his others, are people who may be pleasant and joyful and get by just fine but others are probably, maybe, definitely, messed up. But he loves all of the people in the worlds he creates - and, as has been reported to death, how his process is one where he makes it totally inclusive with the actors as they develop characters and the scenarios over a year or so - and it's usually a matter of... how does this person realize the other needs or wants something, desperately, simply? Life is Sweet is a wonderful example of the kind of film Mike Leigh is usually associated with making, and is deeper and (in a good way) more difficult emotionally than you might expect on first glance.

The family includes Wendy, the mother (Steadman), father Andy (Broadbent), and twin daughters Natalie and Nicola (Skinner and Harrocks respectively). They seem to be a fairly conventional (lower) middle class family in a town in England, where Andy has some big ideas for a food truck he buys sort of on a whim from slightly-shady, so-dated-in-a-windbreaker Stephen Rea (so unlike how I've seen him in other parts, which is great), and Wendy, who sometimes works with kids but also tries to help friend(?) of the family Aubrey (Timothy Spall in a delightfully daffy, sometimes angry and occasionally drunk performance unlike any I've seen before) who tries to open his own restaurant, is the kind of person you or I know who laughs at a lot of things. Sometimes, whether intentional or unintentional, that includes the daughter Nicola who is, really, the depressed and tortured heart of the film.

Oh, she might bring some of it on herself, one might say, seeing as she's an anorexic/bulimic girl (only the sister seems to know she does this, hearing her vomit in her bedroom next over, or at least is the only one who asks), and from the start she comes off as, to put it lightly, a basket case. But Leigh not once, not ever, does he judge her as a filmmaker - some of the other characters might, but that's another matter, and one that creates some mild comic but also dramatic tension in some scenes - as she comes off as pushy and antagonistic, but also that she is so young and mixed up in a lot of ways, not the least sexually (her scenes with Thewlis as her sort- of-boyfriend have a sharp charge of energy between them, how he's with her and why he puts up with her, or why she allows him to say the things he does, is fascinating).

And Harrocks gives it her all, and I'm sure that delighted Leigh to see what lengths she as well as Spall and, in their own way, Broadbent and Steadman went in their performances. The main problem that the characters face here, or at least the mother does as someone who has emotional intelligence but not always the words to communicate well, is how to speak how they're actually feeling. It's not just a British thing either, it's universal for parents to not always know what to say to their children, if they're not as functional as they're expected or a bit "unusual." But it's more than that too; throughout the film we're seeing people trying to have what they want, whether it's the father with his food truck (it's a fixer-upper, and some day he'll do it, maybe), or Aubrey with his restaurant that (on the first night, but we may think it'll be this way for a while) no one comes in, or some others.

The focus is small and the character moments are all intimate in one way or another, and it eventually does build to a very dramatic moment between mother and daughter. What's remarkable is that it's not the kind of ending that might come in a lessor (maybe American?) movie where things end neat and tidy; there's the sense that there is still a *lot* of work to be done between these characters, and this family, and with Nicola and her uncertainty about herself (whether that involves therapy who can say), but it's really about... start trying, and work from there.

One last thing - Dick Pope was cinematographer on this. Seeing this just a week after seeing Baby Driver again... this man was versatile as all get out. What an amazing eye and gift with a camera; and here it's subtle because it's so character driven, but every moment has motivation, every time he and Leigh stay on a character or two characters it matters.
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Mike Leigh brand
SnoopyStyle19 July 2016
Wendy (Alison Steadman) and Andy (Jim Broadbent) live with their twenty something twins Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks). Natalie is boyish and working to be a plumber. Nicola is a cynical rebel without a cause. Nicola secretly suffers from anorexia. Natalie hears it but nobody talks about it. Patsy (Stephen Rea) sells Andy a rundown food vendor trailer. Andy is a chef in an industrial catering service and wants to cook for himself. Friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall) opens his restaurant "The Regret Rien" and Wendy helps him with waitressing. Nicola's disturbed relationship with food extends to sex with her lover (David Thewlis).

Mike Leigh delivers his brand of British lower class movies. It's always very human. These characters are fun. I would like Andy to do more with the food trailer. Nicola is the most compelling character. Horrocks and Steadman have an amazing scene together. There are funny scenes. The family's combative style is energetic and fun. Their love really comes through.
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unforgettable performance by Jane Horrocks
UK films are not easily available on this side of the pond, so this reviewer was first exposed to Jane Horrocks in this wonderfully perfect little film, only to later catch her in Little Voice.

To say she was brilliant in both films is an understatement. The odd thing is that the second film seems to be well-known worldwide but this one seems to have been lost in the shuffle.

The genius here is taking a small but rock-solid cast and capturing the attention of the audience almost from the first scene, with the daily trials and tribulations of a family trying to survive the vicissitudes of the outside world and the internal prison of their own making.

The entire cast is great, the writing sharp, the direction polished. But the performance from Horrocks -- and that voice! -- will haunt you forever.
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Life is not (so) bleak
Tim Kidner31 October 2010
Life is Sweet was the first Leigh film I saw, about 6 years ago. To mark his new film, out this week in cinemas I bought the DVD of this specially.

I settled to reacquaint myself with Leigh's regular team of character actors. I've seen all his films subsequently and have a feel of his breadth of work, from tragicomedy to drama. As such, I found the characters' mannerisms and foibles to be grating and really quite irritating, as if they'd been overacted, or misjudged.

At first. But, as with any family that open their front door to you and until you see and hear how they click and survive as a family unit, you really do wonder what you've let yourself in for.

So, having 'moved in', within 15 minutes I was warming to them. Ten more and I felt I knew them and was totally immersed in their humour and lives. I'm still surprised as to how political and social statements from the late '80's (as well as a trip down memory lane; rusty Ford Escorts and shell suits) manifest themselves through the cast. Bit like the kitchen sink dramas of the '60's but without the grainy black & white, the grime and hitting womenfolk. Leigh's canvas is much wider and behind everyday doors in everyday streets lie the often dismissed emotional and confused pains of modern life. Ordinary people whose problems seem to be teetering on the edge and to them, unique.

The acting in those more poignant scenes is, as I sometimes describe, natural, as is. As you'd expect a real person to do.

With broad humour, wit and a brisk pace this is still a sparkling snapshot of British semi-suburbia twenty years ago. Nothing too shocking or gratuitous. Not the red-hot, pure grit of hard unemployment of Shane Meadows but the sort of folk we know about, or of, who work alongside us, holding the country together. Somehow.

Sometimes, watching this, you'll wonder how, though....
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Sweet it is!
chrissyjac2 September 2003
Whoever wrote the late review missed the boat on this one - 'another boring film from mike leigh', 'i can tell you no such dialog ever did, or ever would take place' - rubbish! This is a very real, moving film. Don't let the plot premise put you off - life in the day of 'typical' english, dysfunctional family of four - the characters develop at slow-burning pace while we watch on at fly-on-the-wall distance. Alison Steadman's character in particular. I initially judged her as a rather silly woman who would giggle at anything, but as the film progresses you see how good a mother she really is, what she does for her children, how she has made sacrifices for them and communicates with them. If people have seen this as a negative film, I hope they reconsider, as, for me, it shows how life is sweet, despite of and because of all the dysfunction of the family.
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