Happy-Go-Lucky Movie Review

R, 118 min, 2008

Director: Mike Leigh
Writer: Mike Leigh
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Alexis Zegerman, Samuel Roukin

Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky is a comedic slice of life about a profoundly good woman. Simple as that.

Sally Hawkins embodies Poppy, a primary school teacher living in London with her flatmate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman). Poppy is happy. Very happy. Check that: she has a smile that lights up a room and a laugh that is infectious (the kind that’s good to spread around) and seems to emit sunshine from within her very soul. One day, Poppy’s bike is stolen while she peruses a bookstore. Her response? Not hysteria or sadness or even anger but a sort of light resignation. “Aw, I didn’t even get to say goodbye,” she says to herself. This is a woman who takes disappointment and even heartbreak in stride. Rather than simply buy herself another bicycle, Poppy decides to take weekly driving lessons on Saturdays. The lessons come from Scott (Eddie Marsan), Poppy’s polar opposite if ever she had one. Scott is a vicious, angry, bitter little man with no sense of humor, no social life to speak of, and no appreciation of Poppy’s sunny demeanor (admittedly, it’s a wonder she doesn’t get on a person’s nerves after five minutes).

The film has no real plot, nor seemingly any great life lessons to impart, but is rather simply a couple of hours spent in the company of a deeply happy and profoundly empathetic person who simply wants to spread joy to all those around her. There are the scenes between Poppy and her apparently unhappy sisters, and between Poppy and her flatmate, and there are scenes involving trampolene classes and Flamenco classes, and there is the angry boy at school beating up on classmates and how Poppy can size up the situation and know instinctively what to do about it, leading to a tentative relationship with the likable counselor Tim (Samuel Roukin).

And then, there is a remarkable scene in which Poppy goes wandering through the streets and backalleys of London late at night. She comes upon a homeless man (Stanley Townsend) muttering to himself, angry and hurt, and she watches and listens, isn’t afraid, tries to get a glimpse into what has put this man into his situation. She makes assumptions, perhaps unconsciously, and his reaction is not quite what we expect. The scene is self-contained and, in a way, embodies Poppy’s character to her very soul, explaining more through action and body language and a specific situation than all the expository dialogue ever could.

Mike Leigh, the writer-director, has an unusual method of creating his film projects. Coming from the theater as he does, Leigh has a rough inkling of an idea, gathers a cast he thinks he might like to spend a year or more with, and then improvises and rehearses with them to envision characters to play. Only then do the formulations of a screenplay begin to emerge. This method has yielded one of the most wonderful, if not precisely prolific, careers of independent cinema history, beginning with Bleak Moments (1971) and continuing almost two decades later withHigh Hopes (1989). Since then, Leigh has created such diverse works as the light and comedic Life is Sweet (1991) which indeed may be his sunniest film since then, Naked (1993), a sardonically-witty and bleak film that is this one’s polar opposite, Secrets & Lies (1996), his most acclaimed film to date, Career Girls (1997), a minor work, Topsy-Turvy(1999), about Gilbert & Sullivan’s creation of The MikadoAll or Nothing (2002) about a working-class family set to implode and Vera Drake (2004), which in its bleakness is on a certain par with Naked, but which is a period piece about a housewife turned illegal abortionist. All of these films have garnered much critical acclaim and awards attention, as will this current film before it’s through.

It is a tremendous credit to Sally Hawkins, who creates a character so unique and lovable as to garner our immediate absorption into her world; indeed, she may have given the most utterly lovable performance since Audrey Tautou in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie (2001). If Hawkins must commit wholly to the reality of her character, making a pleasant and free-spirited woman utterly believable, then Eddie Marsan, normally a quiet and reserved actor, is remarkably on the same level as the loathsome driving instructor who shows little vulnerability and is, at the same time, very vulnerable, hiding behind his anger and strictness as a defense mechanism – against what?

This film would seem, then, to be focusing as intently on as positive, caring and heartfelt a character in Hawkins asNaked was on the vile, cruel, sardonically funny and twisted Johnny (David Thewlis). Indeed, Hawkins is (in her way) as kind and good-hearted and well-meaning a woman as the title character Imelda Staunton so masterfully played in Leigh’s last feature, Vera Drake. Ultimately, it is remarkable how apparently simple yet profoundly effective and deep this film is; it is also one of 2008′s best films.

Note: The film was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.


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