Life Is Sweet - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

UK, 1990

Director: Mike Leigh

Production: Thin Man, in association with Film Four International, British Screen; colour; 35mm; running time: 103 minutes; length: 9131 feet.

Producer: Simon Channing-Williams; screenplay: Mike Leigh; photography: Dick Pope; editor: Jon Gregory; assistant directors: Gus MacLean, Simon Moseley, David Gilchrist, Hedda Moore; production designer: Alison Chitty; art director: Sophie Becher; music: Rachel Portman; sound editor: Sue Baker; sound recording: Malcolm Hirst, Dick Lewzey.

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 ).



Clements, Paul, The Improvised Play: The Work of Mike Leigh , London, 1983.

Coveney, Michael, World According to Mike Leigh , London, 1996.

Carney, Raymond, and Leonard Quart, The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World , New York, 2000.

Leigh, Mike, Mike Leigh: Interviews , edited by Howie Movshovitz, Jackson, 2000.


Variety (New York), 24 December 1990.

Pym, J., and M.Kermode, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), March 1991.

Ostria, V., "Le sitcom idéal," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), September 1991.

Kennedy, H., in Film Comment (New York), September-October 1991.

Cieutat, M., in Positif (Paris), October 1991.

Klawans, Stuart, " Life Is Sweet ," in Nation , vol. 253, no. 19, 2 December 1991.

Rafferty, Terrence, "Shocks to the System (Mike Leigh Film Retrospective)," in New Yorker , vol. 68, no. 1, 24 February 1992.

Bowman, James, " Life Is Sweet ," in American Spectator , vol. 25, no. 3, March 1992.

Quart, B., and others, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1992.

Bates, P., in Cineaste (New York), 1992.

Ellickson, Lee, and Richard Porton, "I Find the Tragicomic Things in Life: An Interview with Mike Leigh," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 20, no. 3, Summer 1993.

"Leigh, Mike," in Current Biography , vol. 55, no. 6, June 1994.

Coen, Stephanie, "More Than Words: An Interview with Mike Leigh," in American Theatre (New York), vol. 12, no. 5, May-June 1995.

Quart, Leonard, "Raising Questions and Positing Possibilities: An Interview with Mike Leigh," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 22, no. 4, Fall 1996.

* * *

In his contributory note to the 1990 London Film Festival Programme, Director Mike Leigh mischieviously lists an alphabet of some 104 incidental items, issues, and ideas he suggests Life Is Sweet is about. These include accordians, Princess Margaret, and stuffed dogs, elements that figure fleetingly in the film, only part of its rich tapestry of ordinary, everyday life. But a more relevant vocabulary emerges which proves to be the underlying organising principle of the film—anorexia, catering, chocolate, chips, dieting, eatables, fatness, garlic, jam, nibbling, nutrition, pineapples, prawns, quiche, restaurants, roast lamb, sugar and spice, and tripe all detail the film's central premise of playing out the intricacies of personal relationships through scenarios involving food, an ever rich metaphor.

The story concerns Andy, a chef who buys a caravan-cum-snack bar in an attempt to liberate himself from a hum-drum job. His daughter, Nicola, is an anorexic who secretly gorges on chocolate and makes herself sick. Friend of the family Aubrey opens the "Regret Rien" restaurant, providing an assortment of unusual and unappealing nouveau cuisine such as "pork cyst" while Wendy, Andy's happy-go-lucky wife, accepts a temporary job as a waitress in Aubrey's establishment. These are merely brief summations of highly nuanced personal stories, each person seeking out some bigger purpose beyond Leigh's beautifully observed and carefully choreographed representation of social existence, an existence informed by dull routine, life-sustaining rituals and the intensity and insistence of habit.

Andy and Wendy are inspirational characters because they have not been deadened by their experience of life. Almost relentlessly cheerful, they enjoy their togetherness and share a playfulness and good humour that emerges from their complete trust in, and love for, each other. Having survived the initial difficulties of becoming pregnant with their twin daughters, Nicola and Natalie, when they were young, Andy and Wendy possess a stability and determination which enables them to engage with life in a positive way. Both take pleasure in the apparently banal, but they invest the banal with an energy and excitement that renders it rich and fulfilling. The source of

Life Is Sweet
Life Is Sweet
their joy and optimism is family life, even despite the difficulties they experience with the deeply troubled, anorexic Nicola, who is perpetually anxious and antagonistic, taking solace in a hollow sounding and ill-informed commitment to feminism and political correctness. The deep-seated self-loathing that characterises Nicola is the underlying narrative tension in Life Is Sweet ; this tension emerges in one of Leigh's customary scenes of emotional revelation—a necessary crisis in the process of healing and redemption. Rejected by her boyfriend, who refuses to satisfy her perverse sexual needs, Nicola is humiliated by her inability to articulate her feelings or experience intimacy. She does not even trust the affection of her mother, and it is this that informs one of the film's climactic scenes as Wendy addresses Nicola's joylessness and inner pain, encouraging her to fight back and not to give in, especially as she had once nearly died from starvation herself. The underlying principle here is that life is precious and must be lived positively, even in the face of great trial.

Natalie, by contrast, is stable and well adjusted. She enjoys family life, going to the pub with her friends, and anticipating her holiday to the United States. Natalie is a employed as a plumber and clearly likes the independence her job gives her—but she also harbours a longing for a family herself. Leigh is careful not to overstate these issues, as he wishes to illustrate how ordinary people merely endure their fate. Occasional scenes reveal private preoccupations in public dialogues, demonstrating different degrees of inner turmoil beneath socially conditioned modes of behaviour. Natalie discusses having a family with Nicola, but Nicola not surprisingly resists, determined as she is to distance herself from anyone else's concern for, or interest in, her life. This situation changes in the final scene of the film, after Nicola's emotional crisis with her mother, when Natalie tries to offer Nicola comfort and support. Their exchange, muted and tentative though it is, signals reconciliation and growth. The comfortable silence they share is hopeful and secure. It is in these scenes that Leigh successfully shows the inhibitions and limitations in his characters. "Life Is Sweet" if we accept our flaws, our self-delusions, and our inadequacies, yet still retain the capability to love.

It is perhaps Wendy who most exemplifies this principle. She supports Aubrey in his doomed enterprise of opening a restaurant and even endures the horrendous (if hilarious) opening night, when Aubrey gets drunk and makes a pass at her (he ends up semi-naked among the tables he has up-turned in his frustration). Wendy also supports Andy's snack-bar venture in the full knowledge that it more represents Andy's desire to be successful on his own terms than a genuine possibility for change. Wendy enables her daughters to accept themselves and still believes that life is worth living. She is perhaps one of Leigh's most heart-warming and moving characters in that she embodies hope in an often hopeless world.

—Paul Wells

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: