Soon after its UK release, there was talk that Mike Leigh’s new film was unlike anything the director had worked on in the past. Considering that I’ve only seen Leigh’s Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake, watching the trailer for Happy-Go-Lucky suggested that the assumption was correct but having seen Leigh’s newest offering, I’m not so sure the sentiment applies.
On the surface Happy-Go-Lucky is a slice-of-life look at Poppy, a 30 something North London schoolteacher who is, as the title suggests, happy-go-lucky. She’s a free bird, an optimistic woman who rolls with the punches and whose good cheer seems to suck the energy out of the room. We follow her over a period of a few weeks, seeing some of the day-to-day events of her life: learning to drive, going the extra mile for one of her students, losing her bicycle, finding a beau. To some, Poppy may seem a bit off the handle but others will, as I did, appreciate the over exuberant energy of a character who is grounded in reality but feels like someone out of this world.
Underneath the smiles, cutting remarks from outsiders and Poppy’s continued push to stay positive, Leigh manages to interject some of the social issues his films previous films have carried so heavily. We see Poppy dealing with a racist driving instructor, the pressures of society to marry and settle down but beyond that, there’s also the sense that this is one woman against the world and frankly, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a woman being happy and sure of herself and facing the hardships life throws at her, one smile at a time.
But it’s not all smiles and good cheer. The film has some dramatic moments which really strike a cord. Perhaps it’s the fact that Poppy handles them with tact and civility which, in another film, may come across as preachy but tucked in among her constant happiness, seem that much more realistic. I was particularly impressed with Leigh’s approach to the final confrontation between Poppy and Scott, the racist, constantly unhappy driving instructor. The collision of opposites causes sparks to fly but the resolution rings true and the exchange of dialog between the two over those drawn out 10 minutes is fantastic.
A film like this would fall flat without a great lead but thankfully, Sally Hawkins pulls this off beautifully. From the onset, she embodies the character of Poppy and she never falters. Anyone can be good humoured but rarely do you find anyone quite this cheery yet there’s a sense that Poppy is a real person and not some figment of the imagination. Alongside Hawkins is a great cast of supporting character, namely Eddie Marsan whose take on the grumpy driving instructor is the embodiment of evil. And I don’t mean evil in the sense that he goes around committing crimes but there’s a constant feeling that this guys can snap at any moment and his final blow-out with Poppy is down right scary.
It’s easy to see how Happy-Go-Lucky could rub people the wrong way; Poppy will either grate or grow on people and if one falls into the grating camp, this film will certainly not sit well. Aside from the great performances, Leigh deserves a whole lot of credit for writing a film that ends exactly as one would hope rather than expect and that, in and of itself, was a wonderful surprise. One thing is for certain, if you can relate to Poppy, you’ll wall away feeling like you can tackle anything life throws at you.