Have you ever watched a film that was so uncannily like your own life that you were convinced that the film-makers were monitoring and recording your every move? For me, LIFE IS SWEET was that movie.
I’m not talking about the events in the story, but all the way through there were little character moments that chimed so precisely with the world I lived in (still living at home with mum, dad and sister, in a house too small for us all) that once I finished watching it, I rewound the tape, dragged my mum and sister into the room and made them watch it too.
They did so, with wide eyes and open mouths. One scene in particular had them screaming with recognition…
We were used to seeing a sort-of hyped-up reflection of reality in soaps on TV, but they were always done in such a rush, with such a sense of melodrama, that it was hard to take them seriously. But Life Is Sweet is a Mike Leigh movie. The actors spend weeks, if not months, working on their characters, rehearsing and refining them through improvisation. It’s a fairly unique method of film making, but gives the dialogue a naturalistic rhythm that would look impenetrable on the page.
To say that this film was a major influence on my early writing, especially my first play, would be a massive understatement. It gave me licence to write characters that sounded like people I knew.
Leigh gets a lot of flack for being patronising to his audience, characters and even the working classes*, but in Life Is Sweet, and the better-known SECRETS AND LIES, I saw truthful representations of ordinary people I recognised, and the trials they faced. Not epic struggles against monsters or aliens, but just people coming to terms with life in an ordinary suburban world. I’m learning that story is all about characters discovering who they are, reconciling the conflicting parts of their own selves. If you can pull that off, whatever the setting, you’ll have the ingredients of a great drama. And Leigh’s films have this in spades.
*Though I only ever see this criticism from middle class journalists, so…