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  Life is Sweet You Can't Choose Your Family
Year: 1990
Director: Mike Leigh
Stars: Alison Steadman, Jim Broadbent, Claire Skinner, Jane Horrocks, Stephen Rea, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Moya Brady, David Neilson, Harriet Thorpe, Paul Trussell
Genre: Comedy, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Wendy (Alison Steadman) and Andy (Jim Broadbent) have been married for over two decades now and have raised a couple of twin girls, Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks) in the Enfield area of London, though they have turned out very differently. Natalie is a tomboy who has secured a job as a plumber, not what her mother would have wanted for her to end up doing but as long as she's happy, and she is, then that's something she can accept. Nicola is another matter, however, as she is patently labouring under a raft of psychological issues that exhibit themselves in a spiky, antisocial attitude her family tolerate but make fun of in the hope that she will pull herself together, but even Wendy tells her to shut up quite often...

There was more to this plot than the twins, naturally, as this was a Mike Leigh movie where he applied his extensive and intricate rehearsal techniques to his cast, so each had their own narratives to engage with, some of which not even the audience watching the end result would be aware of. This also meant the cast would have secrets from their fellow actors, with only presumably Leigh being entirely aware of what they were all up to and how they interacted, though whether as a puppet master pulling the strings or as a benevolent deity guiding his creations was a matter of personal taste. What it did mean was one of his works, be it theatrical, on television or in the cinemas, had been planned to a high level of perfection.

He and the cast he assembled were at times accused of concocting caricatures, and it's true Leigh was as fond of the broad strokes as he was the subtleties of performing and storytelling, but no matter how over the top his comedies got, there was an essential humanity present that left us understanding the people, if not entirely grasping every minutiae of their existences, material that cast would take to their graves, presumably, unless someone was nosy enough to inquire about them and actually received an answer. Knowing about this unorthodox approach to filmmaking made for a richer experience, and it was always clear every persona was a multifaceted individual, even if their most visible aspects were intended to make us laugh.

Some prefer Leigh's comedies to his drama, but they were by no means exclusive, as his drama would feature the odd laugh and his comedy, more obviously, contained the serious scenes to offset the laughs. Those chuckles in this were largely provided by Timothy Spall as Andy's friend Aubrey, a man who it's never stated is driven to be cool, but we can perceive that status will always elude him, from whence the humour arises. In his subplot that threatened to dominate, he is starting a restaurant which serves gourmet food - that's gourmet in Aubrey's mind, as not even Heston Blumenthal would serve up the revolting combinations this would-be restaurateur is planning to be a hit with the locals. If you think the joke is those locals will eat there and not know the difference, you would be far wrong - Leigh wasn't as patronising as his critics would accuse.

Aubrey's breakdown should not be funny, it's a man's dreams being ruined after all, yet Spall and his interactions with Steadman (Wendy is the stand-in waitress) proved hilarious, painful, yes, but still very funny, summing up the power of looking back retrospectively and wondering what you were thinking, what others were thinking, how you got into this situation - you have to be casting your mind back from the perspective of surviving, of course, but if you have you'll be in possession of a great anecdote and a life lesson in one. That was why life was "sweet", a title that sounded ironic but sincerely indicated how complex our reactions could be to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and the mere act of managing to get by, to have dreams but also adapt when they were not fulfilled, was a very human experience. By the conclusion, Wendy and Nicola's relationship has emerged as the focus, and you may well be moved by the mother's plain talking to her troubled offspring. Maybe not Leigh's most accomplished, but you could sense his affectionate respect for these folks. Music by Rachel Portman.

[The BFI have released this on dual format Blu-ray and DVD, with special features including Leigh's Olympics 2012 short and a commentary from the director himself.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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