British filmmaker Mike Leigh is known for his very particular way of making films. Rather than start with a script, Leigh works with his actors in a designated improvisation period before filming begins. The director provides sketched-out ideas and characters, but the actors become full collaborators in the creation of the story and the making of the film.
It's a model that's used by other filmmakers, often in comedies. Christopher Guest takes a similar approach in his mockumentaries, as does Larry David in the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. But Leigh's technique is, by all reports, a very rigorous process with a different goal. The intent is to strip away intent — to capture on film the spontaneous comedy and tragedy of everyday life.
Among Leigh's gentlest and funniest films is the oddball 1990 family portrait, Life is Sweet. Reissued to Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection, the new edition features digitally remastered image and sound, a new audio commentary track with Leigh, and the usual complement of critical essays and archival documents.
Life is Sweet depicts a few weeks in the summer of a working-class family outside of London. It's an invitation, really. Leigh and his collaborators are cordially extending a proposal to the viewer to spend some time with these people, in this place and time.
Jim Broadbent plays family patriarch Andy, a catering chef who is long on big plans but short on the follow-through. Andy's wife Wendy (Alison Steadman) is the kind of loving but anxious sort who smooths everything over with a running patter of small talk and jokes.
Andy and Wendy's twin daughters, 22 years old, still live at home. Natalie (Claire Skinner) is sensible and still, with an androgynous style and an appreciation for the simple things in life, like a pint at the pub with her fellow plumbers. Her sister Nicola, on the other hand, is a mess. Played by Jane Horrocks, Nicola is a walking spasm of fear and self-loathing — feelings she directs outwards toward her exasperated but concerned family.
We meet some family friends. David Thewlis is Nicola's secret lover, who drops by the house for a round of kinky sex that suggests the depth of Nicola's emotional pain. Timothy Spall plays an eccentric acquaintance who convinces Wendy to wait tables at his new, entirely doomed restaurant. (The menu features all those internal organs and meat byproducts associated with British cuisine.)
If the film has a central story (and it really doesn't), it would be Andy's decision to purchase a dilapidated food truck from his shady friend Patsy (Steven Rea). The junked-out van becomes a visual metaphor for the family. It's pretty beaten up, but it still functions. It leans but never topples. It's homey.
Life is Sweet is often touching, often funny, and it maintains a most delicate surface tension. Some of the characters are so eccentric that they would become grotesques in the hands of a less careful ensemble. I'm thinking of Spall's character in particular. But the director and performers are so clearly locked in with one another that each scene, each beat, feels organic and authentic. When the film's big dramatic scenes roll around, they percolate up naturally.
The film's biggest problem isn't the film's problem at all: It's that, on this side of the pond, the thick working-class U.K. dialects can be extremely difficult to decipher. This is where closed captioning comes in handy. Criterion has long resisted putting a direct menu option for closed captioning on their DVD and Blu-ray titles, for reasons I still don't understand. But all English-language titles now have an encoded SDH track (subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing). You have manually activate the closed captions with your remote control or the buttons on your Blu-ray player. On the Playstation 3, hit the Triangle button to access the captioning options.
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