When I first moved to Chicago in 1990, I remember seeing two movies that first year at the beautiful Music Box Theatre that changed my 22-year-old idea of what movies could be. The first was “35 Up,” which changed my idea of what documentaries could be. The other was Mike Leigh’s “Life is Sweet,” which showed me a new (to me) way of making dramas.
Leigh’s funny and touching working-class smorgasbord is out on DVD and Blu-ray this week in a new edition from the Criterion Collection. It’s the film that first put Leigh on the map, as he went on to make excellent films like “Another Year” and “Topsy Turvy,” and it has all the hallmarks of a Mike Leigh film, deeply-felt relationships between its characters borne out of months of preparation with the actors, a humane but not sentimental spirit, and an emphasis on small lives, quietly and unquietly lived.
The emphasis here is on a family, both ordinary and extraordinary. Andy (Leigh mainstay Jim Broadbent) is a chef who wants to open his own food truck on the side, while Wendy (Alison Steadman, then Leigh’s wife) teaches dance classes to children. They’re a fun couple — Andy is a dreamer and somewhat absent-minded, but devoted to his family, while Wendy is almost chronically daffy and exuberant. They have two children, twin sisters Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks). Despite looking so much alike that, for much of the first time I saw the movie, I thought I was watching the same actress in a dual role, the two sisters are completely different. Natalie is good-natured and stable, Nicola is a twitching, angry, anxiety-ridden mess. I found her hilarious in 1990; now that I have two daughters of my own, not so much.
The film follows some of the family’s schemes, such as that food truck, or a family friend (Timothy Spall) whose attempt to open a French restaurant ends in disaster. (One thing you notice now is that the foodie dreamers in “Life is Sweet” are merely ahead of their time in 1990 — that food truck would have them lined up around the block today.) But the real heart of the film is that family, as the family members approach Nicola with a mix of caring and exasperation.
The title of the film is presented in a cheery font at the beginning of the film, but its life-affirming nature seems like more of a challenge. Is life sweet? How can two sisters grow up in the exact same circumstances and turn out so different? The key to happiness, the movie suggests, is to find sweetness in the sour as well.
The Criterion edition includes a new gregarious commentary track by Leigh, which he opens by listing all the things his movie is about in alphabetical order (“caring, catering, central heating, chips, chocolate. . .”) as well as an extended 1991 interview with Leigh. There are also five short films that Leigh made for the BBC back in 1975 that show his wry take on working-class interactions in nascent form.