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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Life': How Sweet and Special It Is

November 13, 1991|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Mike Leigh leaves you speechless. His marvelously eccentric "Life Is Sweet" is at once surreal and very real, a film in which nothing happens and everything is experienced. You feel protective about Leigh's work because its almost indescribable virtues touch the heart, yet far from being some delicate flower, "Life Is Sweet" has the wild, brazen, anything-goes energy of a 2-year-old, willing to take chances that would freeze the blood of another, more timidly conventional film.

For if "Life Is Sweet" (Westside Pavilion) is nothing else, it is out there. No focus groups passed sober judgment on this anarchic cinematic lot, no fuzzy-minded studio executives scratched their heads and asked for a little more of this or a bit less of that. Yet quirky as they are, we warm to Leigh's very British people at once, we find them enormously sympathetic because, unlike most movie folks, they are not presented fully formed in the first five minutes but rather reveal themselves a little more every time they appear.

As his last feature, "High Hopes," showed, Leigh's heart is with the British working class, and he concentrates here on a family living in a north London suburb of Enfield: Wendy (Alison Steadman), her husband Andy (Jim Broadbent), and their twin late-teen daughters Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks). We watch them interact not only with each other but with two of Andy's layabout friends, the mysterious Patsy (Stephen Rea) and the all-too-obvious Aubrey (Timothy Spall), an odd type intent on opening the Regret Rien, an Edith Piaf style eatery that is the French restaurant from hell if ever there was one.

Almost at once, Leigh and his actors begin to lay the family groundwork: Andy is a dreamer, not particularly grounded in reality, and his wife, the eternally cheerful optimist, is hardly hard-nosed either. One daughter, Natalie, is a quiet sort, a boyish plumber who works construction and dreams of visiting America. Nicola, however, is something else again. All wire-rimmed glasses and attitude, she is twitchy and strident, given to screaming hostile manifestoes on the order of "all men are potential rapists" in the most pinched voice imaginable. Quite understandably, she drives everyone else in her family crazy.

To understand what "Life Is Sweet" does with these people, a word must be said about Mike Leigh's singular working methods. He does not, strictly speaking, write his scripts, and in fact prefers the "devised by" credit that appears on some of the many films he made for the BBC during nearly 20 years of work for British television.

Rather, Leigh sits down with his actors and, over a period of time that can last for months, builds a script from scratch, using extensive improvisation and rehearsal to in effect organically grow the characters from the ground up. As a result, the people in Leigh's films have much more than the usual amount of texture. We don't merely watch lives in "Life Is Sweet," we experience them with a level of emotional authenticity that few other pictures approach.

And once Leigh and his people have your attention, they're not content with making a benign comic fable. Almost invariably, his films and his characters push everything as far as possible, going up to and past the border of caricature in an attempt to capture the truest reality. So after the laughter comes anger, sadness and pain, an emotional jolt that is all the more unnerving for being unexpected.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the success of "Life Is Sweet" is that by all rights it ought not work at all. One can imagine Leigh's methods resulting in chaotic, self-indulgent films long on speechifying and short on insight. What saves them, frankly, is Leigh's perfect psychological pitch. His instincts about people, about what makes an authentic human moment, are impeccable, and watching him keep his balance is part of the pleasure of "Life Is Sweet." It would ruin the impact of this very special film to tell you more about the journeys its characters make, but it is safe to say you will be grateful at being allowed to tag along.

'Life Is Sweet'

Alison Steadman: Wendy

Jim Broadbent: Andy

Claire Skinner: Natalie

Jane Horrocks: Nicola

Stephen Rea: Patsy

Timothy Spall: Aubrey

A Film Four International and British Screen presentation of a Thin Man Films production, released by October Films. Director Mike Leigh. Producer Simon Channing-Williams. Screenplay Leigh. Cinematographer Dick Pope. Editor Jon Gregory. Music Rachel Portman. Production design Alison Chitty. Art director Sophie Becher. 1 hour, 42 minutes.

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