I always enjoy seeing the results of Mike Leigh’s process: he sculpts his characters beginning months before shooting in an intense collaboration with the actors, who during shooting sometimes don’t know what’s going to happen next until it happens. Like all his work, “Happy-Go-Lucky” is an episodic slice of life, a droll picture of English social relations in a specific time, yet he’s clearly going in a different direction after "Vera Drake". There’s a lot of color in his palette this time, for one thing. His latest creation is a real character, alright: an unsinkable primary school teacher called Poppy, whom we meet in the midst of her happy life. She’s brought to life by Sally Hawkins in a breakthrough role, her smile toothy and goofy, her eyes squinting with mirth. Though she’s no longer a kid at 30, the fun-loving, flirty Poppy still hasn’t started taking life seriously at all, exasperating people who do with her non-stop cheeky joking. In that respect her character seems to have been influenced by Ricky Gervais’ David Brent (which is interesting because Gervais has acknowledged the influence of Leigh’s 70’s TV work like “Abigail’s Party”). We meet her best friend/roommate (Alexis Zegerman) and her sister (Kate O’Flynn). If you enjoy hearing regular Londoners talk, you’ll enjoy this movie. (And it’s not just the accent, is it—it’s also the funny way they have of putting things).
Even as we laugh, though, there’s a current of tension running through the film: Poppy interacts in a trusting, friendly way with strangers in a way most adults wouldn’t, and we’re often on edge waiting for it to get her in trouble. One of the things the film asks is, how nice can a person get away with being in this world? There’s a marvelous extended scene in which she encounters an erratic, schizophrenic homeless fellow in a deserted area at night. We keep expecting him to assault her at any moment, while she’s thinking only of getting on his wavelength. A lot of the film takes place inside the car of her powder keg of a driving instructor (Eddie Marsan), who is simultaneously attracted and annoyed by her, and who simmers with rage about modern multicultural London (the children of whom populate Poppy’s classroom). She’s finally crossed paths with an utterly humorless person. We eventually get to see just how troubled he really is, yet like Poppy, Leigh’s cinema empathizes with all: we can see that the sense of control and pride he gets from his job is the one thing that allows him to function in a society in which he feels deeply powerless.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)
- Nov 19, 2008