If I was stranded on a deserted island and I was only allowed one film to satisfy my entertainment needs, it would be one of Mike Leigh's films, particularly 'Topsy Turvy'. It's characters, set pieces, and story are all top notch, if not some of the best you'll ever see. 'Life is Sweet', which was made almost a decade prior has some of the same cast, and while it may not have the dramatic set pieces that 'Topsy Turvy' did, it makes up for them in characters and story. This small tale at times harshly mixes family comedy with some very depressing issues. What works best is that this it's ultimately a story about a family living their life, warts and all.
One of the reasons I loved HBO's 'Six Feet Under' is that the show centered around a seemingly normal family. And in fact they were. I fell in love with each character and rooted for them, even though they had some major problems, but that's how life is. We are all not perfect in any way, and too many times we tend to see in film or television glimpses of what a family is like. Most of the time, these families have minuscule problems and always like each other at the end of the day. That's not the case in real life nor in 'Life is Sweet'. Instead of a happy-go-lucky family, we get a family trying to get by who don't always see eye to eye.
The heads of the household are Andy (Jim Broadbent) and Wendy (Alison Steadman), who are a working class family in a suburb of London with two twin twenty-something daughters, Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks). Andy and Wendy are happy in their career decisions and while they are not the richest family on the block, they manage to get by. Natalie and Nicola want more though. Natalie is a soft spoken girl who wants to see what is outside of London and desires to experience love. On the other hand, Nicola is a very angry girl who hates her family and place in life, and wants nothing more than to be alone and on her own.
Being in the catering business for a long time, Andy decides to purchase a fast food caravan for cheap from a guy named Patsy (Stephen Rea). Wendy supports her husband's efforts and does what she can to help him. Meanwhile, a friend of the family named Aubrey (Timothy Spall) informs them he wants to open a modern French bistro in their neighborhood, although his plans for the restaurant are completely bizarre. His decor is outlandish while his menu seems like it was taken straight from that famous dinner scene in 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom'.
Being a good friend, Wendy says she will volunteer when needed to help with Aubrey's restaurant, however due to poor planning and unreliable people, the opening night is a disaster, leaving both Wendy and Aubrey and emotional drunken wreck. At the same time, the angry Nicola starts to realize that her parents and sister actually like her, despite her being rude every chance she gets. When her boyfriend played by David Thewlis comes over, her only means of a climax involves some serious fetishes. Her emotional state is so fragile, that she doesn't bother telling her boyfriend how she feels, leaving him no choice but to leave her. And with a funny, yet minor accident that leaves Andy with a broken ankle, this misfit family comes together and tries to get along.
What works best here is the dialogue between the characters. It all seems so real and free of any cliche. It's also quite comical as we all know people with the same quirks and flaws in our own lives. At some points during the film, you almost feel like you're watching a documentary on a family as Leigh filmed this with a raw and unpolished look. The results bring an organic and wonderful feel to cinema. 'Life is Sweet' shows a family's failures and strengths perfectly and apologetically and is highly recommended.
'Life is Sweet' comes with an impressive 1080p HD transfer presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The disc says that it is a new digital transfer from the original camera negative in 2K resolution. The detail is very sharp, providing some excellent close ups. We can see defined wrinkles, individual hair follicles, and stitching in clothing. Even in the wide shots, the depth is amazing and very clear.
The colors tend to take on more earthy tones and pop off screen. Nothing seems softened at all here or overly saturated. It all looks like it's from the actual source material and hasn't been altered. The flesh tones are natural and smooth with the black levels running deep and inky. There were no compression issues, nor any dirt, banding, or aliasing on this release. This is a top notch video presentation.
This release comes with a lossless DTS-HD 2.0 audio mix and sounds very good for what it is. I wish this was converted to 5.1, only to have a more immersive sound. That being said, the audio does its job. The dialogue is clear and crisp and never hard to understand. The score and music in the film sound great too and add that emotional element to every scene. I only wish I could have heard it in 5.1.
The ambient noises and sound effects are there, but everything comes out of the fronts, so there is not a whole lot of directionality or feeling like you are in the room with any of these characters throughout its 103 minute run-time. This audio mix has no evidence of cracks or hissing of any sort and always sounds clear. It would have been suited better for a 5.1 transfer, but this was the film's original sound design and we have to respect that.
'Life is Sweet' is a great film that mixes the most dramatic moments in a family's life with some genuine comedy. It will definitely put a smile on your face as you watch the story unfold. Criterion knocks it out of the park yet again with their video presentation as it looks stellar. The audio sounds great too, but I wish there was a 5.1 audio option. There are some great extras, leaving this gem of a film highly recommended.