United Kingdom, 2008
U.S. Release Date:
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Samuel Roukin
Mike Leigh has often been referred to as a prince of misery. His films, grounded in working class reality, are often downbeat. It's hard to argue with their quality or authenticity, but one typically doesn't walk out of a Mike Leigh film with a renewed appreciation of life. His most widely esteemed movie, Vera Drake, is an excellent example of that. The movie received deserved raves for its story, direction, and acting, but it's not the kind of thing one shows to a friend in need of a pick-me-up. That's why the buoyant tone of Leigh's latest, Happy-Go-Lucky, is such an unexpected and welcome change-of-pace. For his part, Leigh is just as grumpy as ever, but he has produced a motion picture that can best be described as optimistic.
Happy-Go-Lucky is a character study that devotes nearly all of its considerable attention and energy to the portrayal of one individual: the irrepressible Poppy, who is played by Sally Hawkins with an intensity and immersion one normally associates with an Oscar nomination. Hawkins is a British actress who has hovered around the film and TV periphery, playing a variety of supporting roles over the course of the last five or six years. She first caught Leigh's eye with a small role in Vera Drake, and recently was the lead in a TV production of Jane Austen's Persuasion. Happy-Go-Lucky is her first opportunity to shine, and she does so brilliantly. Viewers may not remember the movie's minimalist plot, but they will remember Poppy. It's a riveting portrayal that focuses attention. Without Poppy, there wouldn't be a Happy-Go-Lucky. Without Hawkins, there wouldn't be a Poppy.
There is, in fact, not much of a story, but that's often the case with Leigh's films. The director is a great believer in improvisation and hones in on interesting characters in circumstances that are often ordinary. With Poppy, that's a few days in her life. She's a grade school teacher who loves her job. She has no boyfriend, is the eldest of three sisters, and has shared a flat with the same roommate for 10 years. She is indefatigably bubbly, and even an event like the theft of her bicycle does little to interrupt her optimism. It's a minor annoyance, but nothing more. During the course of Happy-Go-Lucky, we see Poppy take driving lessons from an instructor whose dour personality is in direct opposition to his student's, visit a chiropractor, learn how to Flamenco dance, date a social worker, and cope with a weekend spent at the home of her pregnant sister.
Scott (Eddie Marsan), Poppy's driving instructor, is a more typical Leigh character than the protagonist. Angry and seemingly always on the edge of an outburst, he represents those whose beliefs have been violated and whose hopes have been dashed. He is the ying to Poppy's yang and proves to be her greatest challenge. He is simultaneously attracted to Poppy and repulsed by her. The final scene between these two provides her with an unsuspected revelation about how she may unintentionally affect others. That scene, in addition to being Happy-Go-Lucky's most dramatically potent, is also the closest the film gets to reminding us of the director's resume.
Poppy is the kind of character it's a pleasure to spend two hours with. In fact, I would gladly have given her additional time. It's not that the minutia of her life is inherently interesting or film-worthy; rather, Poppy can command attention while doing pretty much anything. Some audience members may not have a positive initial impression. At first blush, such a potion of boundless energy and sunny optimism can grate. Few, however, will not be converted by her charm by the end, especially after she lets us peek beneath the exterior and see her caring side. This raises an interesting question about why many audience members will warm to the character: Does Poppy's personality change during the course of the movie or does the viewer's getting to know her result in an improvement of any negative first impressions?
While any or all of the events related during the course of the film might seem to form the backbone of an unendurably boring motion picture, everything comes alive because of Poppy. She's both the sparkplug that gets things going and the fuel that keeps them moving. Most importantly, she's the reason to experience this film and, because of her, what an experience it is!