Life Is Sweet
This invigorating film from Mike Leigh was his first international sensation. Melancholy and funny by turns, it is an intimate portrait of a working-class family in a suburb just north of London—an irrepressible mum and dad (Alison Steadman and Jim Broadbent) and their night-and-day twins, a bookish good girl and a troubled, ill-tempered layabout (Claire Skinner and Jane Horrocks). Leigh and his typically brilliant cast create, with extraordinary sensitivity and craft, a vivid, lived-in story of ordinary existence, in which even modest dreams—such as the father’s desire to open a food truck—carry enormous weight.
Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet makes its debut on disc in North America from Criterion, having only been available on VHS previously. Their new Blu-ray presents the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc with a new 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer.
As with other films licenced from Film4 for Blu-ray (Shallow Grave and Leigh’s Naked) it’s another exceptional presentation. It’s a bright, colourful film, brilliantly brought to life on this disc. Colours are saturated perfectly, bright, and vivid. Black levels are deep and shadow delineation is excellent. The image is highly detailed, never going soft, and edges are cleanly defined without any edge enhancement present. The digital transfer delivers a clean image, rendering the film’s grain nicely, never looking like noise.
The print is in excellent shape, and I don’t recall a single instance of damage. In all it’s an incredibly clean, natural looking presentation, and one of the more impressive ones I’ve seen recently.
The disc delivers a simple but effective DTS-HD MA 2.0 surround track. After a rather active and loud opening, which fills the sound field, it settles down. Dialogue and sound effects, which stick primarily to the fronts, both sound clean and natural, with excellent range and fidelity, as does the film’s wonderful score, which fills out the environment nicely. It’s not showy at all but it’s a delightful presentation.
The disc has a few lengthy supplements starting with an audio commentary recorded for Criterion by director Mike Leigh. It’s a pleasant track with the director recalling the making of the film and his collaborations with the actors. Though there was a general script a lot of the film was improvised, many things made up on the spot based around the settings or props. It’s actually quite impressive the amount of detail they got into: Leigh recalls that both Spall and Broadbent studied the culinary arts to get ready for their roles, and when going over the menu Spall’s character came up with, which is beyond ridiculous, they actually made sure that the menu was feasible by having Spall try the recipes out. Anything not feasible or just terrible was taken out. He expands on the details of some characters, and laughs about some of the dated elements (portable televisions) but delivers a wonderful commentary, even if he quiets down substantially in the latter half. (As a side note I was a bit amused at my own annoyance when Leigh incorrectly points out what is a “Masters of the Universe” toy as a “Star Wars” toy. How dare he confuse the two!)
Following this is a one-hour audio interview with Leigh from 1991 taken at the National Film Theater. The interview, which was recorded in front of an audience after a screening of Life Is Sweet, features the director talking the film, covering its themes, its production design, its characters, and more. He also talks about his films and style as a whole. He takes questions from the audience as well, and answers as best he can. A lot of this is repeated in the commentary so it’s not a necessary feature to listen to, but it’s still a decent inclusion, the added benefit of the director taking some questions from the audience, even if he’s not sure how to answer them. The audio plays over a simple background that I believe is supposed to represent the wallpaper in the household of the feature film.
Criterion then includes 5 Five Minute Films, which, as Leigh explains in the 3-minute audio introduction (playing over the same background as the previous feature’s,) were the remnants of a project from 1975 that never really took off. The general idea was that Leigh would make a series of 5-minute films for the BBC to be shown on television, which would all be self-contained films. He felt television fragmented what it delivered so he wanted to see if he could deliver full stories in the short fragments. The BBC apparently loved the idea and let him create five shorts as a test, but Leigh dropped out after the BBC wanted to actually have multiple directors work on the series, which was not what Leigh intended. Criterion presents the five shorts here, all ranging about five-and-half-minutes each. The film’s included are Probation, the charming The Birth of the Goalie of the 2001 F.A. Cup Final, Old Chums, A Light Snack, and Afternoon. They’re all rather good, managing to convey a lot in their short time frames and are a wonderful inclusion on this set. (Richard Griffiths makes a brief appearance in A Light Snack.)
David Sterritt then closes off the release with an essay on the film and Leigh’s presentation of people in his films. The essay is of course found in the booklet.
Overall it doesn’t look like much and the supplements do feel a bit light maybe, but they are are all fairly lengthy and excellent in quality.
A few strong supplements and a rather amazing looking transfer make this release a must. It comes with a high recommendation.