Life Is Sweet [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (23rd September 2017).
The Film

“Life Is Sweet” (1990)

Andy (played by Jim Broadbent) and Wendy (played by Alison Steadman) have been married for more than 20 years and live a fairly standard life in North London with their two daughters in their early twenties, twins Nat (played by Claire Skinner) and Nicola (played by Jane Horrocks). Not all is perfect in the family as their individual quirks and weaknesses get to the best of them. Andy is a senior chef at a catering facility though he has a problem not finishing DIY projects at home, including finishing the patio and working on restoring a dilapidated food van which is his latest acquisition from his friend Patsy (played by Stephen Rea). Nat is fairly independent working as a plumber, but she has no prospects of boys or having a family in the future, more looking towards traveling the world. Nicola is battling bulimia and also shutting herself from the world. Unlike Nat who is working, Nicola stays at home all day, stuffs herself, vomits the food out secretly, while also having a secret boyfriend (played by David Thewlis) who comes over while the rest of the family are out. In addition to their own family issues, there is the aforementioned Patsy and also the eccentric Aubrey (played by Timothy Spall) who is looking to finally starting a business on his own - a Parisian restaurant. But unlike Andy who has culinary experience, Aubrey is putting his own eccentric spin which the menu and the interior design have no consistency.

Writer and director Mike Leigh’s third feature film is closer to a documentary than a fiction film as it plays for reality rather than quirky comedy. The scenes that the family have together are genuine in the way they interact with each other, have casual dialogue, and how they move around in the scenes. Jim Broadbent and Alison Steadman seem like a real life couple although Steadman was the wife of Leigh at the time. Claire Skinner and Jane Horrocks are obviously not related in real life but pull off the believable aspect of twin sisters in the production in their looks as well as their way of playing off each other as identical twins with very different personalities. Scenes can be sincerely funny like Andy coming home from the hospital and the way the family jokes around that he got injured by tripping on a kitchen spoon. While other scenes like Wendy confronting Nicola in her bedroom is absolutely one of the most emotional and devastating few minutes ever put to screen.

What unusually doesn’t work to the fullest is the supporting characters of Patsy and Aubrey strangely, as they are played by the amazing Stephen Rea and Timothy Spall respectively. The oddballness of their characters are almost too weird compared to the central family, with Patsy being a hang-around drunkard that has not much to do and does not give enough time for an effective presence and Aubrey being like a cartoonish buffoon. Who in their right mind would give him a license to have a food establishment and did anyone ever think to try to advise him on what NOT to do? His drunken tirade on the restaurant’s opening night is extremely uncomfortable and disturbing, and with the film not continuing to see what had happened to his character after that is another unusual point not taken. Granted they are superb actors that have done amazing work, it is the writing aspect that slightly falls flat. These characters have a look and feel that audiences remember, but sadly do not seem that central to the narrative.

Food is a major theme in the film - almost a secondary character in the story. There are many scenes involving breakfast, lunch, or dinner, Andy’s workplace, the white-elephant discarded van, Aubrey’s dream, and especially Nicola’s fascination for chocolate in every way except eating it for herself. The title may be “Life Is Sweet” and has a relationship with food, but the story is anything but sweet. It’s about rises and falls, regrets made, responsibilities taken, and failures while still having a standard hope for goodness. It’s not the most inspiring film but it’s one that manages to sneak in a few chances of hope while being a bleak kitchen sink drama.

The film was released theatrically in the UK on March 22nd 1991 and in countries around Europe and in the US in the same year and the following year. Critics were especially kind to the film with the London Critics Circle Film Awards awarding it British Film of the Year, the Bodil Awards with Best European Film, the (US) National Society of Film Critics Awards for Best Film, Best Actress (Alison Steadman), and Best Supporting Actress (Jane Horrocks), and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards awarded the Best Supporting Actress award to Jane Horrocks, plus many other nominations from various international associations. More than 25 years later “Life Is Sweet” is still one of Leigh’s best known works and one that still stands the test of time.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray which can be played on region B or region free Blu-ray players

Video

The BFI presents the film in 1080p in the AVC MPEG-4 codec, in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Considering the 1.85:1 American framing and that the transfer looks very close to the transfer used by The Criterion Collection in the US for their Blu-ray in 2013. The BFI transfer looks very good as it is a brightly lit film with very few moments for dark or night scenes, and the colors are absolutely crisp. Detail is also wonderful, film grain is visible and it has been cleaned well with very little in terms of damage. Some scenes do have their limitations due to the film stock used and the conditions they were shot in, but nothing terrible to disturb the viewing experience. Another excellent transfer from the BFI.

The runtime of the film is 103:20

Audio

English LPCM 2.0 stereo
The original stereo track is presented in lossless LPCM. It’s not the most active stereo track with music and effects giving minor separation while dialogue is almost always centered. Dialogue is usually fairly clear though there are some echoey effects in certain on location scenes, but nothing very distracting from the viewing. Thankfully there are no instances of damage to the audio track, with no pops or dropouts.

There are optional English HoH subtitles for the main feature in a white font. They are easy to read, well timed and fully captioned.

Extras

The BFI’s release of “Life Is Sweet” is a dual format Blu-ray+DVD release, with the film and extras presented on the Blu-ray disc and repeated on a region 2 PAL encoded DVD.


DISC ONE (Blu-ray)

Audio commentary with director Mike Leigh
Leigh sits for a solo commentary which has quite a lot of information, though it does start to lack in the latter half. Leigh talks about some of the discussions he and frequent collaborating cinematographer Dick Pope had on how the film would look, the months of improvisation by the actors to create the finished script, the food theme, and information on all the main actors and their roles. The second half starts to fall quieter with Leigh speaking for only about half of the time. The aforementioned heartbreaking scene of Wendy confronting Nicola? Leigh falls silent. It is obviously the scene in which we the commentary listeners want to hear about the most, yet maybe Leigh himself was speechless? This commentary was recorded by the Criterion Collection and used on their 2013 Blu-ray and DVD releases.
in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"A Running Jump" 2012 short (35:34)
Parry (Eddie Marsan) is trying to sell one of his cars to a prospective buyer, but the problem is that the car is still being worked on at the shop and the mechanic is not willing to return it until the bill is paid for. He uses his wit and his wordplay to the buyer Gary (Lee Ingleby) while also getting criticism from his wife Debbie (Samantha Spiro), his taxi driver father (Sam Kelly) and his twenty something identical twin daughters Jody (Danielle Bird) and Haley (Nichole Bird). This 2012 short film directed by Mike Leigh is faced paced, quick witted chop-chop dialogue rather than the drama presented in “Life Is Sweet”, and is highly entertaining for its short runtime. And yes, Danielle and Nichole Bird are in fact real life twin sisters. As it is a fairly recent production the transfer for the audio and video are both very good.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.85:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with optional English subtitles

Interview with Jane Horrocks (13:56)
The actress reminisces about meeting Mike Leigh for the first time and the creation of the character of Nicola. She admits that she based some of the characteristics on a person she knew, how the improvisation sessions led to a much more relaxed and engaging atmosphere, as well as thoughts on the other cast members and the reception the film received.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

The Guardian Lecture: Mike Leigh Interviewed by Derek Malcolm (62:15)
This audio only Q&A is a lengthy discussion with Leigh in 1991 following the release of “Life Is Sweet”. He discusses about work at the BBC making TV films, the jump to feature films, notes on the productions, and much more. This runs alongside the feature film as an alternate audio track and after the 62:15 mark the audio reverts back to the feature film audio track. Although strangely the this audio extra can only be accessed by the main menu and the remote audio key will not switch the soundtracks.
in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

Stills Gallery
More than 50 stills are provided of the behind the scenes shots taken during production.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4

Original Trailer (2:23)
This is a very poor quality badly framed trailer taken from a video master, with faded colors and echoey sound. Although the booklet states that the trailer was delivered in HD, this is a standard definition PAL format trailer.
in 576i MPEG-2, in 1.33:1 and winowboxed 1.66:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

DISC TWO (DVD)
The film and the extras are repeated in standard definition PAL.

Booklet
The 16 page booklet with essays, photos, credits, and information is included. First is “The Spall Appall: Food and Failure in Life Is Sweet” by writer and film curator Ashley Clark which discusses about the Aubrey character and Timothy Spall. A vintage review of the film written by John Pym is reprinted, originally appearing in Monthly Film Bulletin in March 1991. “A Family Warm-Up” is an essay on “A Running Start” written by curator Will Massa, connecting the time of 2012 London pre-Olympics to the setting of the film. Plus there are notes on the presentations and the acknowledgements section.


As mentioned the film was released on Blu-ray in the US by The Criterion Collection which included the following extras:

Audio commentary with director Mike Leigh
1991 audio interview with director Mike Leigh (60:56)
Short Films (27:48):
- Audio introduction to films by Mike Leigh (3:03)
- "Probation"
- "The Birth of the Goalie of the 2001 FA Cup Final"
- "Old Chums"
- "A Light Snack"
- "Afternoon"


The audio commentary is the only carryover to the BFI release while all the other extras are exclusive to the US release. The BFI release has a wealth of information included and equally does the Criterion. The film was also releases previously in the UK on Blu-ray by 4DVD, but we currently do not have specs for this release.

Overall

More than a quarter century later “Life Is Sweet” stands the years gone by as one of the most memorable British films of the decade and gave a large interest in Mike Leigh’s career, boosting him in critical eyes in both Britain and internationally. It does have some inconsistency in tone and Leigh even admits there are flaws, but remains an enjoyable and sometimes heartbreaking ride. Without it, we may have not seen the likes of “Naked”, “Secrets and Lies” or “Topsy Turvy” from the director in the same decade. The BFI gives the film excellent marks in visual and aural presentation plus very informative curated extras. Very recommended.

The Film: B Video: A- Audio: A- Extras: A- Overall: B+

 


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