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Life Is Sweet: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Life Is Sweet (1991) movie poster Life Is Sweet

US Theatrical Release: October 25, 1991 / Running Time: 104 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Mike Leigh

Cast: Alison Steadman (Wendy), Jim Broadbent (Andy), Claire Skinner (Natalie), Jane Horrocks (Nicola), Stephen Rea (Patsy), Timothy Spall (Aubrey), David Thewlis (Nicola's Lover), Moya Brady (Paula), David Neilson (Steve), Harriet Thorpe (Customer), Paul Trussel (Chef), Jack Thorpe-Baker (Nigel)

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Today, writer/director Mike Leigh is valued in his native United Kingdom and esteemed by critics and art house moviegoers
around the globe for small but savory films like Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, and Happy-Go-Lucky. In the early 1990s, Leigh was not yet well-known as a filmmaker, having dabbled largely in British theatre and television since his 1971 film debut Bleak Moments. Leigh returned to feature films with 1988's High Hopes, which made it to 25 North American theaters and was nominated in the Independent Spirit Awards' Foreign Film category.

Leigh's next effort came in 1991's Life Is Sweet. Like much of his output, this was an intimate comedy-drama not easily described or synopsized which had little impact at the box office but gained some critical notice and accolades.

Laughter flows in the relationship of married couple Andy (Jim Broadbent) and Wendy (Alison Steadman) is Mike Leigh's "Life Is Sweet." Nicola watches as boldly-fashioned family friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall) fidgets with a pineapple.

The film focuses on a working class British family of four. The father, Andy (Jim Broadbent), is a chef who is an impulsive customer outside of stores and a notorious procrastinator when it comes to home repairs. His wife Wendy (Alison Steadman, then and long Leigh's wife), a children's dance teacher and clothing store clerk, likes to tease him but the playfulness is good-natured and the couple is still very much in love. Their redheaded twin daughters now in their early twenties are little like their parents. Natalie (Claire Skinner) looks and dresses like a boy and apparently works as a plumber. She is the good daughter. The bad daughter is Nicola (Jane Horrocks), a twitchy, skinny thing with a nasty word and bitter face for anyone who dares address her. Her family tolerates her and shows her kindness, but clearly there is some tension.

Nicola's bedroom is a private sanctuary of secrets. She has a pretty severe eating disorder, as she regularly binges on chocolate candy bars from a locked stockpile and then forces herself to throw them up. She also has a secret relationship with a young man (David Thewlis), which primarily involves him licking hazelnut chocolate spread off her tied-up body.

Andy is easily persuaded by his drinking buddy Patsy (Stephen Rea) to purchase a rusty, run-down food truck to renovate and restore. Andy's family scoffs at his investment as another major task is added to his rarely tackled "to do" list. Meanwhile, bizarre family friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall) is actually opening a restaurant of his own, an eccentric little place he wants to attract a respectable clientele on word of mouth. When his one waitress bails, Wendy takes over, but the establishment that intends to serve tongues and brains is doomed to fail.

Drinking buddies Patsy (Stephen Rea) and Andy (Jim Broadbent) lament how their beloved football has gone downhill over time. David Thewlis makes one of his earliest film appearances in the small role of Nicola's unnamed lover. In Leigh's next film, he would get to play the lead role.

Like the other Mike Leigh films I have seen, this one shows little interest in telling a conventional story with a tidy beginning, middle, and end. Leigh doesn't do plots, instead giving us the chance to spend time in the personal lives of fairly unremarkable British people. They are fleshed-out, three-dimensional characters with layers, backstories, faults, and dreams.
Getting access to their private worlds is a privilege and in these characters, we very well might see qualities of ourselves and people we know.

Not everyone appreciates that type of free-form character study, which explains why only one of Leigh's films -- 1996 Best Picture Oscar nominee Secrets & Lies -- has amassed an 8-figure U.S. gross (and even then just barely). It also explains why critics love Leigh. People who watch, analyze, and dissect movies for a living are certain to appreciate any filmmaker who's willing to think outside the box and work at a distance from all the common molds and proven formulas. The cast lists of most films are full of characters who exist only to relay a plot point or serve as location-appropriate set dressing. Leigh favors a much smaller troupe (a mere twelve actors are credited here), ensuring that everyone we meet has been given a distinct personality and perspective developed over extensive thought and an atypical rehearsal processes.

From the few Leigh films I have seen (and I've got to confess Life is only my third), I would say that his work most resembles that of Woody Allen. Leigh certainly doesn't aspire to Allen's clockwork-like productivity, as he has averaged just four or five films a decade. But he is always the sole writer and director and he always sticks to methods that are distinctly his own. A quarter of Leigh's Life Is Sweet cast has gone on to feature prominently in the Harry Potter franchise, which will indefinitely remain the work for which Spall and Thewlis are best known. But one gets the sense that epic fantasy storytelling or anything in a genre beyond comedy, drama, or a mix of the two holds little interest to Leigh. There seems to have been no chance Leigh would follow in the footsteps of his fellow British directors Michael Apted and Mike Newell into big-budget spectacle tentpoles. That isn't to say Leigh couldn't pull off such films, just that they do not seem to have any place in his conception of the art form.

Like Woody Allen, you know what you're getting from a Mike Leigh film after seeing a couple of them. That I have previously seen Leigh's two latest films, the good Happy-Go-Lucky and even better Another Year, puts Life Is Sweet at a bit of a disadvantage. While the director's distinct brand of anti-plot storytelling is already in place by the turn of the '90s, Leigh has clearly grown as a filmmaker with experience. The intimate exchanges of Life aren't as sharp, scintillating, or memorable as the ones to come in future films.

Aubrey (Timothy Spall) and his reluctant waitress Wendy (Alison Steadman) calm their nerves with wine on an Opening Night with no diners.

A believable mix of likable and unlikable characters comprises the central family. And then there is the caricature portrayed by Spall, who is hilariously introduced fidgeting with a pineapple in sunglasses, a tilted baseball cap, and a loud San Francisco Giants jacket. I didn't expect to see such a broad individual in a Mike Leigh film, but found him every bit as entertaining as seemingly intended. The novelty of Aubrey wears off, though, even as he drunkenly strips to his colorful briefs and makes pitiful advances on Wendy. The film's boldest stroke is also its liveliest and yet Aubrey comes to serve a peripheral function at best, essentially being shrugged off by the family by the end. The family's own concerns are never terribly compelling, even if they are tackled head on in a sincere, cathartic mother-daughter heart-to-heart. The always delightful Broadbent is the character you most enjoy spending time with and even he doesn't get to do much beyond getting injured on the job and resisting Patsy's barside sales pitch for a handheld television.

All in all, Life Is Sweet is an interesting effort you are glad to see, but you don't come away from with much more than a few hearty chuckles and insight into what Professor Lupin and Peter Pettigrew were up to more than a decade before becoming an integral part of one of cinema's most devoted fandoms.

Today, Life Is Sweet becomes the third Mike Leigh film admitted into The Criterion Collection (following Naked and Topsy-Turvy), somehow simultaneously making its debut on both Blu-ray and proper Region 1 DVD (having previously been relegated to a manufactured on demand DVD-R in 2011 on the latter).

Life Is Sweet: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.85:1 Widescreen
2.0 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: May 28, 2013
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Also available as Criterion DVD ($29.95 SRP) and Film4 Library DVD-R (April 22, 2011)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Life Is Sweet's 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer is just about flawless. You expect early '90s cinema (especially from outside the US) to show some age, but this dazzling presentation doesn't do it. The suitably sharp, vibrant and spotless element shows off Leigh's often sunny photography quite nicely. The 2.0 DTS-HD master audio surround mix isn't as striking, but the recordings are likewise comparable to a brand new film and not subject to any problems.

A couple (Richard Ireson and Celia Quicke) shops for baby clothes in Mike Leigh's 1975 short "The Birth of the Goalie of the 2001 F.A. Cup Final." A man (Robert Putt) delays his cinema-bound neighbor (Tim Stern) with small talk in the Mike Leigh Five-Minute Film "Old Chums."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

True to form, Criterion assembles a decent if not overwhelming collection of bonus features alongside the film. First up is a brand new Mike Leigh audio commentary recorded earlier this year. He opens with an alphabetical list of the film's content that he read at its premiere. Avoiding lulls for over an hour, Leigh is as thoughtful as you'd expect, weighing in on all characters, scenes, and cast members, recalling memorable production experiences, pointing out some subtle details and explaining some of the references.
All that makes it of greater value than the average solo commentary at least until its quiet final laps. Leigh's interesting closing confession is that this is his least favorite of his own films.

Next comes an audio recording of an interview (1:00:56) Leigh gave at London's National Film Theatre upon the film's March 1991 UK release. Playing over what looks like a piece of faded wallpaper, the interview has Leigh speak at length about the film, his improvisational rehearsals, his cast, and financing. Halfway in, the floor is opened up to audience questions, which keep the level of discourse high.

Last but not least, we get five short films (all in HD) written and directed by Leigh in 1975 as pilots for a proposed television series that BBC didn't pick up, but did eventually air in 1982. Leigh introduces and explains the section in an audio clip (3:03). Each of these "Five-Minute Films" runs just a bit over that for a total runtime of 27 minutes and 48 seconds.

A window cleaner (a young Richard Griffiths) eyes a sausage roll in the Mike Leigh short "A Light Snack." This shot of the family from near the end of the film becomes the simple, static image of Life Is Sweet's Criterion Collection Blu-ray menu.

Probation has a young black convict (Herbert Norville) meeting with his parole officer. The Birth of the Goalie of the 2001 F.A. Cup Final looks at a couple (Richard Ireson and Celia Quicke) over a few years as they talk about having a kid, plan for it, and finally do.

Old Chums sees a chatty man (Robert Putt) delaying a disabled man (Tim Stern) trying to get to a movie. In A Light Snack, a window cleaner (Richard Griffiths, yet another Harry Potter connection) is contrasted with a couple of workers in a pastry factory line. Afternoon sees two women (Rachel Davies and Pauline Moran) chatting over cigarettes and alcohol joined by a naive newlywed (Julie North) who makes them laugh.

As a fan of short films, I find these to be a brilliant inclusion here, while also giving some context to Leigh's tastes and career.

The basic menu displays a still of the family while a bit of score is played but not looped. As always, Criterion's authoring is impeccable, with the disc support bookmarks and resuming all playback without a hitch.

Inside the thick clear keepcase (which displays chapters and reverse side artwork inside), we find another one of Criterion's outstanding insert booklets. The heart of this 20-page pamphlet is "Life Is Bittersweet", an essay on the film by David Sterritt, book critic, film professor, and chair of the National Society of Film Critics (who bestowed three wins on the film back in '92). Sterritt breaks down the film, explaining Leigh's unusual creative process and seeing his political views in the story. It's a good read with valid points, even though I believe it overstates the film's achievements.

Mike Leigh's "Life Is Sweet" with dissimilar redheaded twins Nicola (Jane Horrocks) and Natalie (Claire Skinner) managing to relate to each other a little bit.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I've seen enough Mike Leigh movies to recognize him as an important, unorthodox filmmaker worthy of the respectful treatment only Criterion can provide. As such, I appreciate that Life Is Sweet finally gets a Blu-ray and a proper DVD release from the studio and that it boasts an outstanding feature presentation and valuable bonus features (especially Leigh's 1970s short films). Having said that, I wasn't nearly as crazy about this film as Leigh's more recent ones and I can't see it being one you are compelled to revisit with any frequency. Still, it is well worth seeing once, especially on this excellent disc.

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Timothy Spall: Enchanted Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street The King's Speech | Jane Horrocks: Tinker Bell
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Reviewed May 28, 2013.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1990 Film Four International, British Screen, Thin Man Films, and 2013 The Criterion Collection.
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