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Life is Sweet (1990)

Courtesy of Channel Four Television

Main image of Life is Sweet (1990)
35mm, colour, 103 mins
DirectorMike Leigh
Production CompaniesThin Man Films, Film Four International, British Screen
ProducerSimon Channing-Williams
ScreenplayMike Leigh
PhotographyDick Pope
MusicRachel Portman

Cast: Alison Steadman (Wendy); Jim Broadbent (Andy); Claire Skinner (Natalie); Jane Horrocks (Nicola); Stephen Rea (Patsy); Timothy Spall (Aubrey); David Thewlis (Nicola's lover)

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Family life with Andy, a professional chef who buys a decrepit hamburger van, his wife Wendy, a part-time waitress, and their daughters Nicola, sex and Marx-obsessed and a secret bullimic, and Natalie, an apprentice plumber who rejects gender stereotyping and dreams of escaping to America.

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Life is Sweet (d. Mike Leigh, 1990) takes food and family as its central themes. Released in 1991, like other films of that year, like The Commitments (d. Alan Parker) and London Kills Me (d. Hanif Kureishi), 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 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

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Andy's business plan (2:26)
2. Regret Rien (3:36)
3. Heart to heart (4:52)
Broadbent, Jim (1949-)
Leigh, Mike (1943-)
Rea, Stephen (1943-)
Spall, Timothy (1957-)
Thewlis, David (1963-)
Channel 4 and Film
Social Realism