VIFF Review: Happy-Go-Lucky

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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.

Happy-Go-Lucky Movie StillOn 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.

Happy-Go-Lucky Movie StillBut 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.


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Ross Miller

Glad you liked this one, Marina. As you mentioned it came out in the UK months and months ago and I saw it then and I bordered on LOVED it. Not quite but at least really, REALLY liked it. I fall into the camp of loving the character, she didnt annoy me at all although I can see why she would for some people. Sally Hawkins is incredible in it.

Andrew James

Just got home from this. The supporting cast is what works best here. The room mate, Zoe is awesome as is, as you mentioned, the driving teacher. And whoever the guy is that plays the bum she meets late at night is awesome. I think that was my favorite part of the movie (that and her first encounter with the driving instructor).

The movie and main character didn't grate on me exactly; but it did take me a while to warm up to the film. Nothing in the first 30 minutes or so struck me as particularly funny and nothing with much depth or bite seemed to be coming. But when the film finally gets around to getting a little bit more on the serious side, I found myself enjoying it much more.

The social worker bit seemed to be unnecessary except it clarified her sexual preference for me.

I liked it more than I thought I would, but it still felt too long, a bit too chipper and needed a tad more insight into serious issues.

Still, I thought for sure the movie would end up with her finding her bike. I was fucking POSITIVE that would be the cheesy ending. But it didn't take that route. Kudos for that.

Kurt Halfyard

@ Andrew: "I liked it more than I thought I would, but it still felt too long, a bit too chipper and needed a tad more insight into serious issues."

I think there is a lot more going on in the film than at first glance. One of the most loaded/intimate questions you can ever ask someone is "ARE YOU HAPPY?" It is not an impolite question on the surface, but it one than people rarely answer honestly. And this movie tackles it with a real gusto. I think there is more going on in this movie than in most 'serious dramas' of which you speak.

Andrew James

Make no mistake, I caught all of that stuff, but it's just touched on and then never gone anywhere with. Maybe that's the point – that it's just there for us to ponder, but I would've liked to get more into Poppy's psyche. Is she a happy person or not really?

The moment with the bum seems to suggest she's not, after the blow-up sequence with the driver seems to suggest she's not (I thought she was going to bust into tears), but everything else seems to suggest she is.

"And this movie tackles it with a real gusto."

Not really. Touched on yes, tackled with gusto? No.


I found this movie truly hilarious with a quick dialogue I haven't seen in a film for a long time. Though not all reaction has been so positive. I found an interesting comment here on why some people found Poppy so annoying. It's here: