Nicola and her sororal twin Natalie (Claire Skinner) are in their early 20s, living at home with their parents, Andy (Jim Broadbent) and Wendy (Alison Steadman). Outwardly the big difference between the pair is that Natalie is a seemingly sociable, hard-working person while Nicola stays in her room all day smoking cigarettes and scowling. Eventually it becomes apparent that they both suffer from varying degrees of maladjustment. Natalie is reserved to the point of nearly lacking discernible emotion. She’s a homebody, disinterested in the possibility of securing a romantic partner. Nicola is a bundle of nervous tics, made worse by a generally negative attitude. She has a secret boyfriend (David Thewlis) who drops by only for fetishistic sex (it involves a Nutella-like substance and is as disgusting as that may sound). Otherwise she exhibits nothing but suspicion and distain toward men.
Though never directly referenced, my guess is that the twin sisters may have been victims of sexual abuse at some point. If true, the long-term effects of this manifested themselves in very different ways. The withdrawn Natalie is able to lead a relatively normal life, but Nicola obviously wasn’t so lucky (she also struggles with bulimia). One possible contributor to their possibly abusive past is family friend Aubrey. Though apparently intended primarily as comic relief, as played by Spall the character is flat out creepy. His leering behavior, made more ambiguous by his incoherent mumbling, suggests a tendency toward very unsavory behavior.
This is where the film becomes troubling for me. Despite the nagging insistence that this loveable gang of kooky nuts is laughably endearing, many of them are clearly in dire need of professional mental help. At no point is Aubrey implicated in any past wrongdoings, but it is made clear at one point that he does harbor desires for Nicola. To be fair, both Nicola and Natalie have long been of legal age and Aubrey clearly desires every female he sees. He makes drunken advances toward Wendy, his best friend’s wife, during his restaurant’s disastrous opening night. His quasi-girlfriend is the androgynous Paula (Moya Brady), his chef at his restaurant, the Regret Rein.
Despite sharp writing and effective acting during a climatic confrontation between Wendy and Nicola, there is never a real sense that anything positive or progressive will occur within this dysfunctional family. Wendy and Andy are well-meaning parents, but they’re clearly in way over their heads in terms of managing their daughters’ problems. Andy, who foolishly purchases a junky taco truck from another “friend” (Stephen Rea), is an unmotivated (and frequently drunken) oaf. Wendy has an annoying way of forcing laughter at nearly everything she or anyone else says (annoying, but admittedly well-played, by Steadman).
Life is Sweet boasts a great transfer. Made from the original camera negative, supervised by cinematographer Dick Pope, only the fashions and hairdos date the 23-year-old film. This is a surprisingly colorful film, given how the sometimes dour subject matter could’ve easily inspired a drab look. The colors look vividly realistic. Natural film grain is present throughout, as is a great amount of fine detail. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack is simple, clear, and free of distortion. The English subtitles come in handy for the very thick English accents that may occasionally present a challenge for U.S. viewers.
The primary supplemental feature is a commentary track by director Mike Leigh. This is a brand new track, recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2013. The only other supplement specific to Life is Sweet is an hour-long audio interview called “Mike Leigh at the National Film Theatre,” recorded in 1991. “Five-Minute Films” offers five early short films directed by Leigh in 1975. Including a short introduction by Leigh, they total about 30 minutes. Interesting viewing for fans of Leigh. David Sterritt’s essay “Life is Bittersweet” is included in the booklet.
Not without interesting moments, Life is Sweet presents a gallery of irritating characters (some deeply disturbed), allows us to glimpse their unhappy (or, at best, pseudo-contented) lives, and offers glimpses of false hope that they will overcome the sources of their depression. Based on what Leigh has depicted, I find that highly unlikely.