7 October 2017



Life is sweet, yeah, sure. But it can be sour as well and, as the guy from MY NAME IS EARL once remarked to Tom Cruise in VANILLA SKY (2002), 'without the sour, can life really be as sweet?' In other words, you need the rough with the smooth, you need the thorns as well as the roses, if you're to be able to appreciate the good times when they come along. I tend to agree, though maybe I'd feel differently if I'd only ever tasted pure sweetness, haha.

Life is certainly sour at times for the people in Mike Leigh's famous portrait of a working-class family scraping along by the skin of their respective teeth in Margaret Thatcher's Britain. I hated every single member of the family at first glance, which is maybe what the director intended. They all seemed like horrible and annoying people. Fair enough.

But by the end of the film, we've come to understand the family a bit more and the dislike and irritation turns to sympathy and maybe even a grudging respect. Again, maybe what the director intended, the old slyboots? Let's have a look at the individual family members for a moment and see if we can figure out what makes 'em tick, shall we? After you, dear reader, after you...

Alison Steadman, a fine British actress, plays the lead character Wendy. She's your average housewife, is Wendy. Knocked up at age sixteen with twin baby girls by her hubby-to-be, she would have had to grow up fairly fast and forgo a lot of the fun and socialising teenagers can enjoy if they're smart enough not to get tied down at an early age.

She seems to do a couple of part-time jobs. We see her working in a kiddies' clothes shop and coaching a little girls' dancing class. Later in the film, we see her helping out with the launch of a family friend's restaurant. All good so far. So why did I find the character of Wendy so annoying initially?

Well, because she has an annoying habit of giggling inanely at everything and not seeming to take anything seriously, ever. Everything's just a big joke to Wendy. Everything will be grand after a nice cup of tea. 

And she 'enables' her hubby Andy in his apathy and sheer laziness when it comes to tidying up the house and shed and garden and stuff. Why doesn't she try to motivate him a bit more, instead of laughing off his failures and endless procrastinating?

I was gobsmacked to find out that Andy had a job, and a good job at that, namely as a professional chef. I was convinced he'd be unemployed. It didn't seem like he would be able to get his act together to work at a proper job outside the home.

But he's actually good at his job, responsible and seemingly talented enough. So why is he such an unambitious loser at home? Maybe he just likes to switch off and play the slob when he's off the clock. That's all very well but if shit needs doing around the house, it needs doing and that's that. His missus shouldn't let him get away with so much.

Andy is well played by Jim Broadbent, who went on to play the bumbling, cowardly Professor Horace Slughorn, Professor of Potions and one-time Head of Slytherin in the HARRY POTTER movies. Nearly every good British actor/actress made it into those movies, didn't they, with a few notable exceptions, like Colin Firth and Hugh Grant.

Wendy and Andy's twin daughters, Natalie and Nicola, are like chalk and cheese. Natalie dresses like a boy and works as a plumber. There's no mention of her being gay but I'm guessing that it's a given. She knows her sister Nicola's shameful secret-that's-not-really-a-secret but she does nothing about it. Is Natalie an enabler of sorts too?

Nicola is just a mess. Jane Horrocks (Bubbles from ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS) plays her as a whiny, mouthy, surly, thoroughly unlikeable bitch who's constantly griping, but we know that underneath, she's a total wreck. An eating disorder and an obvious insecurity about her place in the world and, indeed, in the family, have left her feeling unloved and unloveable.

She's unemployed and maybe even, at the moment, unemployable, and lives in her scruffy nightie, smoking one fag after another while hiding away in her bedroom and giving full vent to her many nervous tics. I nearly died when it was revealed that she had a boyfriend. A mess like that has a boyfriend...? Well, raise mah rent...

Her boyfriend is played by the rather cute and ridiculously young-looking David Thewlis, another member of the HARRY POTTER contingent. He played Professor Lupin, the Professor Of Defence Against The Dark Arts who also just so happened to be a werewolf. He also played Daddy Nazi in THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS. He was alarmingly sexy in his uniform, I must say.

Anyway, Nicola has a rather bizarre sex fetish which, unsurprisingly enough, involves food. If I told you that she makes Professor Lupin tie her up and then lick Nutella off her bare titties, would you believe me? Nah, you'd fink I was 'aving a laugh, wouldn't you? 'Aving you on an' that. But I swear on Professor Dumbledore's life that it's true.

I like the way that it's shown that David Thewlis is tiring of Nicola's fetish. Let's face it, Nutella spread on titties is a bit of an acquired taste, innit? And people do tire of perpetually having to go along with a partner's fetishes. As a woman who spent many years with a man who required me to constantly have to indulge his fetishes, I know whereof I speak, trust me.

Timothy Spall is truly repugnant as family friend Aubrey. Sex-starved on account, presumably, of being a colossal twat, he'd ride either of the sisters or their mother Wendy if he got the green light, which thankfully he doesn't. He's a flash git, or trying to be, and is always boasting about how rich and successful he is, when he clearly isn't.

He's opening up a French restaurant called The Regret Rien, as in Je Ne Regrette Rien by Edith Piaf. He shows himself in a poor, poor light in the restaurant scenes, sexually harassing both Wendy, who at least knows how to handle him, and his cook Paula.

Paula is a strange and sorry specimen who seems to have mental problems and not much money, if she can be bribed into submitting to Aubrey's sleazy nonsense by a bag of chips. I really wish that the film-makers had shown us the morning-after-the-night-before scenes of Aubrey waking up to a massive headache and a trashed restaurant the day after his Grand Opening. Serves him right, the dirty pervert.

The HARRY POTTER theme continues as we remember that Timothy Spall played Peter Pettigrew, aka Wormtail, Voledemort's servant, aka Scabbers, Ron Weasley's pet rat, in the movie series. I love Timothy Spall as an actor, but I can perfectly picture him playing a rodent, with two chipmunk-style gnashers in the front of his mouth, nibbling on cheese.

Cute, curly-haired Irishman Stephen Rea is great as Andy's drunken friend Patsy. When Patsy was trying to sell Andy the decrepit burger van, I thought the film was going to turn into THE VAN, an Irish film which stars another fine Irish actor, Colm Meaney. You know, an hilarious cleaning-up-the-van montage, then showing us the initial failures followed by the inevitable triumphs...? That might have been a larf.

Anyway, what changes our collective mind about Wendy and Andy and their troublesome brood? That mother-daughter heart-to-heart in Nicola's bedroom might have something to do with it. The sweetness at the core of the family and the film might just offset those slightly sour edges after all.

LIFE IS SWEET is available now, with a whole host of exciting extra features, in a Dual Format Edition (Blu-Ray/DVD) from the British Film Institute.

BFI releases are available from all good home entertainment retailers or by mail order from the BFI Shop Tel: 020 7815 1350 or online at www.bfi.org.uk/shop

Special features
  • Presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
  • A Running Jump (2012, 36 mins): a sports-infused comedy short starring Eddie Marsan, produced as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad
  • An Interview with Jane Horrocks (2017, 14 mins): a newly filmed discussion with the acclaimed actress
  • Audio commentary with Mike Leigh
  • The Guardian Lecture: Mike Leigh in Conversation with Derek Malcolm (62 mins, audio only)
  • Original trailer
  • Stills gallery
  • Illustrated booklet with new writing by Ashley Clark and Will Massa, an original review and full credits


Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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