rom his work. you might expect
Mike Leigh to be impatient with
poeple‘s foibles. and you‘d be right.
‘The last person who interviewed me
for The List. . .‘ he glowers. ‘Ifl ever
see him again I‘ll do him over.‘ Famously testy about criticism of his work. Leigh prides himselfon ‘the privilege of having more rubbish talked about my stuff than a lot ofother people . . .‘
Leigh‘s patience may be tested to the utmost by the reception ofthis latest film Life [5 Sweet. For some critics. the film is typically uproarious. scathing. humane. whatever; others feel it walks an uneasy tightrope between naturalism and caricature. viciousness and sentimentality. A typically queasy picture oflife and lunch in suburbia. Life 15 Sweet. according to Leigh‘s alphabetical list. is about ‘accordions. affection. alcohol. alienation. anorexia. . x-chromosomes. youth. zeal and zest.‘ Leigh admits the list. devised for a festival brochure. is ‘a risible cop-out. I included x-chromosomes. because most films are about that. The subject matter is ongoing for me. It's basically about life and death. work and sex and relationships and love.‘
Life Is Sweet is immediately about a typically mismatched group ofcharacters: kiddie-aerobics teacher Wendy (the dependany protean Alison Steadman). amiable husband Andy (Jim Broadbent) and their daughters — pragmatic Natalie and resentful Nicola. whose life is dominated by anorexia. received rhetoric and dour sex with a unnamed swain and a tub of chocolate spread. But the film is dominated explosively by Timothy Spall‘s Aubrey. an oafish would-be restauranteur. Some of these characters are more than usually larger-than-life by Leigh standards. and the film suffers from the fact that the performances simply don‘t operate on compatible registers— the jovially naturalistic Steadman and Broadbent on one hand. Spall‘s gross-out on the other. and in the middle. Jane Ilorrocks‘ excessively
SWEET AND sou
caricatural Nicola. all sniffs and sneers.
Leigh doesn’t see this as a problem. though. For him. it's all down to the way the characters really are. ‘The question is whether the character is believable or not. Aubrey is a desperate receptacle of received. vaguely transatlantic DJ cultural ties. The Jim Broadbent character doesn‘t suffer from that problem — that‘s the difference. There isn‘t a divergence ofacting styles. there‘s a divergence of behavioural styles. because the film is very precise about behaviour.‘
The key point for Leigh is that to all intents and purposes these characters are real. each equipped with a personal biography arrived at and elaborated upon during the course of his famous technique of pre-production improvisation. ‘It‘s an elaborate investigation that leads to the creation of the thing itself. a real solid microcosm. A lot of discussion. a lot of research. and a huge amount of improvisation goes on behind closed doors. We began with Andy and Wendy. their background and their early relationship. and then the girls joined in. We really investigated that history from the moment they were born. When that‘s going on. I don‘t know where it‘s going.‘ The characters‘ biographies may not end up on the screen but. says Leigh. they‘re essential to what you do see. ‘You have to have an iceberg there. ofwhich that's the tip.‘
Leigh contests the frequently aired view that he‘s concerned exclusively with human hatefulness. He gives the example ofthe couple on a motorbike in his television play Nuts In May. ‘out enjoying themselves and getting on with it‘. Getting on with it —as Steadman‘s final speech in Life Is Sweet makes abundantly clear— seems to be the bottom line in Leigh's world-view.
‘Well. that is the bottom line. isn‘t it? That‘s what it‘s about. life. Life is terrible fora lot ofpeople and therefore. in one way or another. I‘m trying to talk about the thing of. as Nicola says. “I didn‘t ask to be born." And from there on in. it is getting on with it. It is horrible and wonderful and tragic and
The latest film by British writer/director MIKE LEIGH is a black comedy with many themes. most of them connected with eating. Jonathan Romney met the creator ofAbigail’s Party, Nuts In May and High Hopes. and quizzed him on the controversial world-view of Life Is Sweet.
6'] he List 5 ~ 18 April 190]
funny. . . You're invitingme to waffle a bit.‘ But audiences seem just as likely to react to Leigh‘s films by concluding no ‘lsn't life horrible for people'." but ‘Aren‘t people horrible‘.”. The extremity of his characterisations might actually serve as a palliative: people probably come out of his films deeply reassured that they're not that
I Leigh disagrees. ‘I don't remember sitting I in an audience where they bayed and jeered and sneered in a snide way. People have said in great profusion that they were moved and , that they cared. That is about responding to us. in the world we‘re actually in. It isn't looking at some animals in a zoo behind bars.
‘All I‘m doing is asking you to believe in the characters and take it from there. If you have a problem beyond that. then you have a j problem. If you go down to (‘ardboard (‘ity. you will see a lot ofgrotesquencss. Do you ' stand there and jeer and kick the crutches I from under people and shit in their faces. or 3 do you actually care about them‘." ‘
This image suggests a curious dichotomy in Leigh's thinking— is this sort ol’extreme 3 debasement really the only alternative to