Life is Sweet Mike Leigh

Life is Sweet Mike Leigh
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During the hour-long audio recording of an interview conducted in 1991 at the National Film Theatre, just following the release of Life is Sweet, Mike Leigh is asked how he came up with the premise for the film. After chuckling and pausing briefly, Leigh points out that his movies don't necessarily stem from an individual idea or specific motivator. Without addressing his penchant for tackling themes of missed opportunities and the quotidian experience as an act of waiting for, or dreaming of, something more, he details the rehearsal process. His actors collectively improvise for months prior to shooting, honing their characters and developing the situations into a believable, natural form, having a level of comfort on screen that's often missed with traditional scripted dramas. He discusses this on the new audio commentary track included with this Criterion release as well, expanding on how his style has changed over the years, even though many of the themes remain consistent throughout his works. In Life is Sweet, the device, or projected mechanism for coping, is that of food as metaphor for how each character tackles life, as per the playfully cheeky title. But beyond gastronomic plot device, Leigh hints at his approach to making what is ostensibly a political drama—a sly critique of the Thatcher era—engaging the audience with an idea of how life is anything but sweet for the lower-middle class and unemployed, taunted by Capitalist dreams that remain just out of reach. In the home of corporate chef Andy (Jim Broadbent) and childcare worker Wendy (Alison Steadman), this unspoken feeling is omnipresent but is most visible in their anorexic daughter Nicola (Jane Horrocks), who spends most of her time smoking, insulting familial traditions and criticizing her plumber sister Natalie (Claire Skinner) for not having a boyfriend. She lingers around her family perpetually despite refusing to engage in a social capacity, twitching from various anxieties and asserting vague political malaise but not actual action. Instead of eating with the rest of her family, she retreats to her messy, cluttered room where she binges on candy and promptly throws it up in a garbage pail. This ambivalence and self-conscious indulgence is less dramatized in Andy, who buys a run down chip truck from his opportunistic friend Patsy (Stephen Rea) hoping to fix it up and make some extra money working for himself. Natalie also dreams of more, reading magazines about the many American destinations she plans to visit, though adapting to a mostly bleak status quo. Leigh's approach to this material is comic and sardonic, filled with larger-than-life idiosyncratic personalities playing off each other in a way that makes entertaining and amusing what could easily be dreary and depressing. There's still a sense of melancholy about it all—something that would become a trademark of Leigh's works after the success of Sweet helped shape the next chapter in his career—but its tempered with the bit of humanity that copes through laughter on occasion. And while this particular entry into the British auteur's canon isn't his strongest, shying in comparison to some of his later films, it is a significant achievement in his career, paving the path from TV movies and plays to more intimate, socially conscious works that reflect, but don't insist, his political perspectives. Similarly, the group of short five-minute films included with this newly restored 2K digital transfer address his social consciousness, mostly detailing the banality of working class life and the degradation of job interviews. As an early example of his work, they're an excellent addition to the Blu-ray package, showing his evolution as a filmmaker and his consistencies throughout the decades. (Criterion)