One of the most intriguing aspects of running this blog that I’ve discovered over the course of the last year is the opportunity to see two movies from a writer-director that are so thematically and stylistically different that you would never have believed they were from the same person if you didn’t already know it to be a fact. Try comparing a movie like Match Point (a crime thriller) from Woody Allen to one of his absurdist comedies like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) or one of his more serious dramedies like Manhattan. Similarly, how did David Lean go from making a small, quiet romance like Summertime and then head on out and make Lawrence of Arabia (I actually don’t remember which film is older and I’m too lazy to look it up right now). Well, British director Mike Leigh gets to join the ranks of directors who works I’ve reviewed for this blog are radically different from one another. The last film I watched of Mike Leigh’s was the period abortion drama Vera Drake which was heartbreakingly sad and depressing. His Golden Globe-winning 2008 comedyHappy-Go-Lucky may not be quite as joyful as its title or protagonist let on and was a serious case of mood whiplash from Leigh’s other more serious films.
In Happy-Go-Lucky, Poppy (Golden Globe winning Sally Hawkins) is a frighteningly cheerful and optimistic woman. If you took every quirky “indie” rom-com heroine and put them in a blender, you still wouldn’t have a character as odd and bizarre as Poppy. An elementary school teacher, Poppy would ride her back to school everyday, but when it’s stolen (which doesn’t seem to ruin her good cheer one bit), she has to learn to drive and hires Scott (Sherlock Holmes‘s Eddie Marsan), a misogynistic, racist and angry man, to be her instructor. Poppy’s buoyant and endless energy and warmth immediately create tension between her and the always glum (if not straight out furious) Scott. However, when Poppy begins to date a social worker who visited her classroom to help one of her students who had been violently acting out, Scott becomes jealous and all of the anger and rage he had been bottling up has the potential to explode on Poppy who would never intentionally harm any living creature (not even the slightest of exaggeration). Along the way, we see Poppy with her best-mate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) as Poppy weaves her way in and out of different people’s lives in a state of pure, uncorrupted bliss.
Sally Hawkins gave one of the most unique and eclectic performances I’ve ever witnessed as Poppy. As much as I love films like Garden State or (500) Days of Summer), their leads are only slightly eccentric and perhaps flirting with quirky. Poppy borders on being mentally unstable. She is truly just a one-of-a-kind creation that makes Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel look boring in comparison. Had it not been for Sally Hawkins as Poppy, there’s a chance this film would have been borderline unwatchable because Poppy was just so strange that it would have been too easy to “Hollywood”-ize her character, to make it too theatrical. Yet despite being such a content and cheerful person, Hawkins managed to keep her characterization in the realm of reality and though she spent much of the film in the midst of one giggle fit after another, there were moments when Hawkins managed to give Poppy some depths that hinted that perhaps this facade was just to protect her from something much harder and more painful. Somehow even more impressive than Sally Hawkins was Eddie Marsan as Scott. There was so much vitriolic hate and rage in the moments when he suffered one of his many breakdowns that I honestly feared for Poppy’s safety and thought that I would never want to piss Eddie Marsan off in real life because he sold the anger and fury so well. Once again, he managed to make a character like Ray Winstone in Nil by Mouth that was fueled on pure anger without making it seem over-the-top or campy which lesser actors would have failed at accomplishing.
The process by which Mike Leigh makes his movies is almost self-evident in the very natural and realistic sounding nature of the dialogue that pops off of every scene. Rather than writing actual dialogue, his films are largely improved during extensive rehearsal sessions which then result in the actual dialogue being used in the film eventually coming around so it can be practiced. This is not a plot-driven film, and rather a series of vignettes where we get intimate and detailed looks at Poppy’s life (as well as that of her close circle of friends) and are able to see just how someone like Poppy would ever be able to operate in our modern, cynical world. Because there is very little in the way of plot (other than Poppy’s ultimate confrontation with Scott), the first half of the film will likely result in viewer wondering what in the hell type of movie they are watching because even by film’s end, you would be hard-pressed to pinpoint the “point” of the film. However, the last half is over-loaded with compelling episodes that really flesh out Poppy, and whether it’s her interactions with a homeless man, being lectured by her sister about “growing up”, or finally going toe to toe with Scott, we really get to see that there’s more going on in Poppy’s brain than her cheerful demeanor lets on.
If you require your non-plot driven films to have a “point” or some grand statement about life in order to be worthwhile, Happy-Go-Lucky will not be for you. I’ve spent the better part of the day trying to parse out exactly what the film means, and I’m still unable to come up with a definitive answer other than a quiet look at one truly bizarre woman’s life as she tries to find her own happiness and bring smiles to the lives of others. It’s so sharp and insightful into this personality that I suspect that there are perhaps very British commentaries about British society that I am missing out on as an American, but I can’t help if I don’t quite grasp the inner-workings of a very particular subset of British society. For all fans of British humor and fine acting, Happy-Go-Lucky will satisfy you on both fronts and perhaps inspire the same level of introspection in you as it inspired in me. This is a film that I feel I will appreciate after more viewings and after I’ve had the chance to wrestle more with its subtleties and subtext. Go ahead and acquaint yourself with Poppy. Methinks you won’t be disappointed.
Final Score: B+