Without a doubt, the most moving character I’ve seen all year is Nicola (Jane Horrocks), the outrageously unhappy misfit daughter at the center of Life Is Sweet. The movie, written and directed by Britain’s Mike Leigh (who made 1989’s High Hopes), is a lovely, small comedy about a lower-middle-class family of four living amid the dreary comfort of Middlesex. Nicola, who’s around 20, is a twin, but she and her sister, Natalie (Claire Skinner), couldn’t be less identical. Everything about Natalie is serene and well- adjusted. Nicola, on the other hand, is a Scrooge, a wretch, a comic nightmare of adolescent self-loathing. Her milky-pale face peeks out from behind scraggly, carrot-colored hair and a big round pair of specs; her body, which is as thin as a scarecrow’s, disappears into the folds of her clothes. Yet unlike a lot of people who are hiding out from the world, Nicola isn’t an introvert. She’s a terror. She vents her misery and rage by spitting out epithets and venomous rejoinders, even when the people she’s ranting at are being perfectly friendly.
At first, Nicola seems to be a kind of joke. Raising her upper lip in a disgusted sneer, telling people off in her vicious, croaky rasp, she’s like a cross between Johnny Rotten and Paul McCartney’s curmudgeonly grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night. It’s no wonder Nicola’s family isn’t the least bit fazed by her behavior. Her anger is so clearly impersonal — it’s directed at everyone and no one-that only a fool would be offended by it. As Life Is Sweet goes on, though, a small miracle occurs: Nicola’s barbed edges begin to soften and blur into those of a human being.
The superb young actress Jane Horrocks never loses her comic spunk, but she also allows tragedy and pain — almost invisibly — to seep into her performance. Nicola is someone who has tried to banish pleasure from her life. Deep down, though, she’s obsessed with pleasure. A bulimic who binges, greedily, on chocolate (and uses it as a sexual fetish as well), she’s on a mission to deny her own instincts, a mission that’s doomed to fail. When she finally lets down her guard, however slightly, it’s an emotionally transporting moment.
Leigh has been turning out his innovative, shaggy-dog comedies since the early ’70s, but Life Is Sweet is only his second picture to make it over here. His films take a little getting used to, because they don’t quite have plots. Leigh, who develops characters out of improvisations with his actors, scrambles up drama, satire, and slapstick into lyrical kitchen-sink farce. He isn’t above poking fun at the people on-screen, or making rambling digressions that become ends in themselves. At one point, Life Is Sweet veers off, chaotically and hilariously, into a subplot about Aubrey (Timothy Spall), a fat, monosyllabic drunkard who has opened his own rather idiosyncratic gourmet restaurant. The menu alone — it includes such delicacies as black-pudding-and-Camembert soup — is priceless. Leigh gives you such a strong sense of his characters as fluky individuals that even his most lackadaisical scenes are alive with possibility. What holds Life Is Sweet together is his perception — at once funny and wise — that people, when they change at all, do so in small, nearly imperceptible ways, and that that may be enough. A-