Mike Leigh’s light, comic take on the everyday adventures of a primary school teacher who is never in short supply of smiles, laughter, and optimism may at first seem as far as one could get from his previous effort, the gloomy abortion drama Vera Drake (2004). But don’t let the film’s cheery tone fool you, Happy-Go-Lucky’s leading lady is just as layered and nuanced as any of Leigh’s complex heroes/heroines.
Have you ever been in public transportation, gone shopping, or been in line at a grocery store or movie theater, and you see somebody just as entrenched in the miserable rat race as you are, but they seem so uncontrollably, obnoxiously…happy? Depending on your mood, you may hate this person, despising their ignorance in forcibly inserting joy into the banality of everyday life; or you may admire their sustained positive attitude in a world in which there is very little to be happy about. Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is that person, and whether you would want to strangle her or embrace her in real life, you won’t be able to help but fall in love with her onscreen.
Poppy’s misadventures are hardly the stuff of engaging drama, but watching her go through the trials and tribulations of the everyday makes the bombastic comedy/adventure of recent Hollywood fare like Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder seem like stale snoozers constantly begging for your attention rather than earning it. Watching Poppy do such inconsequential activities as clubbing with friends, visiting family, and (in the film’s funniest scenes) taking flamenco lessons, Hawkins embodies Poppy with such sincere bliss that it made me wonder why every aspect of life weren’t approached with this kind of joy by more people.
The film’s plot, if it can even be called that, concerns Poppy’s interaction with her driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), who bears a permanent frown and an attitude of impatience as a result of being done no favors by life. Predictably, their personalities collide, and Scott—who embodies what is probably the more common world-weary attitude towards a disappointing existence—reveals why somebody like Poppy is so incompatible with the rest of the world, yet so absolutely necessary. Likewise, Scott allows Poppy to reveal that she is not an endless supply of empty smiles, but someone who has ascertained the worldly wisdom that happiness is the most productive, sensible, and humane way to approach life.
Happy-Go-Lucky can hardly be called a “comedy” in the generic sense—it is far from a string of jokes or events vying for bigger and bigger laughs. The film’s comic elements come from the mundane and the unassuming, and the ability to laugh along with Poppy flows naturally. Hawkins gives a singular performance, the type of which seems so rarely available to women these days, and I would be surprised if she wasn’t on the Oscar shortlist at the end of the year.
The film’s color palate is absolutely stunning, mainly due to Poppy’s ever-changing, dynamic and multifaceted wardrobe set against the dreary monochromatic backdrop of North London. Leigh and his regular cinematographer Dick Pope paint every space of the CinemaScope frame with vivacious life (in Leigh’s first venture into the wide format).
If there is any complaint I have about the film, it would be one jarringly out-of-place scene in which Poppy confronts a homeless man at night in the desolate outskirts of London. This is the only time in the film in which Poppy’s good humor reads as blissful ignorance rather than beaming pragmatism. But with this stumble aside, Poppy is clearly a character that a world full of Scotts have a lot to learn from.
© 2008 Landon Palmer. All rights reserved.
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