Review by Jack Foley
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Trailer; Mike Leigh’s Characters (A featurette about the actors and characters in the film); Behind the Wheel – Making of Happy-Go-Lucky.
POPPY (Sally Hawkins) is a 30-year-old London primary school teacher whose jolly demeanour enables her to deal with life’s ups and downs, no matter how trying. When her bike is stolen, she resolves to take up driving lessons and promptly finds herself with a somewhat unstable instructor (Eddie Marsan).
A school bully, meanwhile, requires some sensitivity and she calls on the help of the headteacher and a social worker (Samuel Roukin) to get to the bottom of it. All the while, Poppy and flat-mate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) hope to find romance, fully aware that the clock is ticking for both of them…
At a time when people always seem to be moaning about something it’s refreshing to find someone as, well, happy-go-lucky as the lead character in Mike Leigh’s latest.
Poppy is a real enigma – an eternal optimist who tries to confront every situation with a smile. Finding out what makes her tick is one of the many charms of Leigh’s quirky comedy, as is the quality of Sally Hawkins’ central performance.
Having already landed the Silver Bear at Berlin for best actress, don’t bet against Hawkins making a few other shortlists (Bafta especially) come the next awards season.
As Poppy, she’s a genuinely endearing personality – somewhat kooky and even irritating, but blessed with a heart of gold. Initially, there’s a suspicion that she’s naive or even juvenile – an accident waiting to happen or be caught out by the hard knocks of life (this is a Mike Leigh movie, after all). But as she expertly peels away the layers, Poppy is steadfastly upbeat and fiercely intelligent – a discovery that makes her cheerfulness all the more charming.
Come the end of the movie, viewers ought to have cast their reservations aside and be rooting for her to find happiness.
But don’t go expecting any big Hollywood gestures – for this is very much a snippet of an ongoing life that’s only prepared to offer possibilities without any real sense of closure. As is Leigh’s style, it’s left for audiences to make their own decisions.
That said, Happy-Go-Lucky marks a refreshing change of pace for the director after the downbeat (but no less impressive Vera Drake), almost as though he’s set out to prove that he does have a happy side. There are darker elements, such as Eddie Marsan’s volatile driving instructor and some penetrating social observations (everything from PlayStation culture to speed cameras and London’s multi-culturalism are alluded to) but they only make Poppy’s idealism more pronounced.
It’s as though Leigh is challenging viewers’ perceptions of both his central character and the issues they’re talking about without ever judging any of them himself. Just occasionally, he loses direction – most notably during a surreal encounter with a homeless man that could do with some more explanation – but he’s mostly right on the money and the film rarely flags during its lengthy running time.
The end result is a genuinely heart-warming experience that marks yet another triumph for Leigh, and which boasts a central character whose enthusiasm for life might just prove infectious.
Running time: 118mins
UK DVD Release: August 18, 2008