Mike Leigh versus Gaffer Reeves

July 3, 1991

By Tom Jordan

Life is sweet
UK 1990
Written and directed by Mike Leigh
Seen at the Sydney Film Festival
Reviewed by Tom Jordan

One of the few things I remember from four years of Slough Grammar School English was what I now call the Gaffer Reeves Theory: "It takes more talent to write good comedy than a tragedy".

Gaffer Reeves — our English teacher — was, I think, talking about Greek tragedies and comedies. Oedipus Rex, Lysistrata and so on. Or Shakespeare's plays. Rather than their modern equivalent: films.

But the Gaffer (I have no idea what his first name was) had something there.

A tragic play, film or book, like Hamlet, where the hero, his mates, enemies, everyone, are all dead at the end, or at least blinded, poverty stricken, and deeply unhappy like Oedipus, impresses people far more than one where everyone lives happily ever after. A comedy.

Unfortunate consequence: much art makes many feel, that life is shit. And that fate can't be beaten. Why bother?

But there is an "art" which shows that we can fight city hall, enjoy the fight and win. Lysistrata's women say: no sex if no peace — and they stop the war.

These comedies take a great deal of talent. Mike Leigh's got it.

Life is sweet shows a British family in the late Thatcher years. Dad hates his job, gets drunk, cheated, hurt. Dad's best friend starts a restaurant, a hopeless venture, and tries to lay Mum on the restaurant floor. Mum had got pregnant in 1968, when she was 16, dropped out of school, had twin girls. One daughter is permanently unemployed. A verbal revolutionary, feminist, but does nothing about it. The other daughter disappointed Mum, became a plumber.

Sounds bleak, tragic? Well, it isn't.

Mike Leigh succeeds with a real comedy. Real people. In no way goody-goodies, but fighters, winners. On the upward beat.

There's a pretty good chance this film will be released in Australia. Go see it on a day when you wonder whether life can be worthwhile, sweet.

Issue