Like a deceptively simple, obvious cognitive therapy exercise, Happy-Go-Lucky offers the people watching it relief: To see the world through the eyes of optimistic school teacher Pauline “Poppy” Cross (Sally Hawkins) is to be at peace with the good and the bad, even if that seems too easy. (The film’s promotional tag line reads, “The one movie this fall that will put a smile on your face.”) To make sure that the audience does grin, the writer/director, Mike Leigh, provides bubbly Poppy the perfect foil in the form of a dour driving instructor named Scott (Eddie Marsan), who seems incapable of cracking a smile. The comical perkiness of her character is further highlighted by the calm cynicism of her roommate and best-friend, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), and the plain old calm of her new love interest, Tim (Samuel Roukin).
Life Is Sweet and Vera Drake come to mind), which are driven by pain—or by a sort of is-that-all-there-is dissatisfaction with job and family life, as in Leigh’s All or Nothing—Happy-Go-Lucky bobs ever forward on Poppy’s good cheer. It keeps us fully engaged as we wonder at Poppy’s ability to empathize with those in trouble without being drawn down into their depression or despair.The very minimal plot—in typical Mike Leigh style, a world of emotion is conveyed through the most mundane of events and conversations—could have made for a dull movie in lesser hands, as, really, following a flighty thirty-year-old woman from her flamenco lesson to her physiotherapy appointment is only as fascinating as the character is captivating. Fortunately, Happy-Go-Lucky is too full of life to be a bore. Unlike many of Leigh’s previous movies (
Some reviewers and online commenters have declared Poppy annoying, and it’s easy to understand why they might think so: She’s giggly to a fault and dresses like a cross between a porn star and a clown (a typical outfit might involve fishnet stockings, leopard print boots and an over-sized rainbow necklace). From the opening sequence in which Poppy encounters a brooding book store clerk and makes several failed attempts at chit chat, it’s evident that her character grates on the nerves of strangers after even the briefest encounters. But as the movie progresses and we see Poppy deftly navigate a crisis with one of her students and deep-seated family tensions. Her kindness and, ultimately, her natural insight into what makes people tick make it hard to fault her for anything—least of all her genuine zeal for life (and dogs, and trampolines, and children, and wine and everything else that it entails).
At the end of a trip to see her pregnant younger sister (who happens to be the anti-Poppy: tense and controlling), Poppy returns home to catch a glimpse of Scott lurking outside her flat. Scott disappears as soon as she shouts his name, but perhaps the first truly troubling conflict of the film is set. Is Scott a stalker? Or simply trying to get closer to Poppy in the only way he knows how? Marsan’s deftly played angry, isolated character will probably scare most viewers more than he does Poppy, who is secure enough in her own outlook that she can abide a level of insecurity and instability in others that most of us would run from.
Sally Hawkins’s performance is the key to the movie’s success. She certainly convinces as a jokey, carefree eccentric with a childlike appreciation of fun. But Hawkins imbues Poppy with a depth and confidence to which the breezy phrase “happy-go-lucky” just doesn’t do justice. For one thing, she’s extremely responsible when it counts, putting herself at risk to stop Scott from driving when he has become a danger on the road, and getting her distraught student the help he needs. (Hawkins really does seem comfortable showing Poppy’s serious side and avoids the temptation to overdo it; it’s as though Poppy’s failure to take herself too seriously allows her to weather discord and danger calmly because she’s not terrified of losing herself.)
It may be that Hawkins’s mastery of the role is partially a result of Mike Leigh’s improvisational technique, which tends to produce richer characters that you’d get if you worked strictly from a script (a phenomenon that was particularly remarkable in Leigh’s delightfully funny Secrets and Lies). But, whatever the method, Hawkins deserves the credit for saving Poppy from becoming some kind of garishly dressed British Forrest Gump, or even a one-dimensional version of the screechy characters Leigh’s ex-wife, Alison Steadman, sometimes plays. Hawkins is right to make her Poppy simple and too loud, too dopey, too all-over-the-place to be entirely attractive as a lead, but she uses the aggravating aspects of her character for a greater good—that’s what gives her a chance to surprise with some intense moments of understanding. To the extent Leigh is responsible for encouraging Hawkins to take this direction (which is hard to judge), he is to be congratulated for still having such a fine ear for authenticity.
The suggestion that the content of experience—the house you live in, the money you make, the misfortunes that happen to befall you – is far less relevant to happiness than the lens through which experience is viewed is as appealing as it is tough to prove. “How would Poppy make the best of my life?” is the obvious question after the credits have run. As fun as it is to ponder, there is more comfort to be had from a less intellectual, more Poppy-like approach. Lean back, sigh, and savor your good fortune at getting to see such a merry movie with such awareness. You’re lucky.
-Marni Soupcoff is op-ed editor at Canada’s National Post.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Andrew Stiles