Written and directed by: Mike Leigh
Country: United Kingdom
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Samuel Roukin
Has Mike Leigh traded his characteristic social realist dramedies for an irritatingly perky character study? Not quite. Utilizing his trademarked improvisational techniques to build characters and story with his actors, Leigh had the gall to help shape Sally Hawkins into the likable eternal optimist Pauline “Poppy” Cross and then not shatter her idealism into a million little pieces. Refreshingly sunny and open about her life and world, Poppy can, in individual scenes across Happy-Go-Lucky, seem like that one constantly cheerful friend who urges you to “buck up” during a bad day. But as the film builds and she has further encounters with strangers and friends alike, a portrait coalesces revealing a with-it, helpful woman legitimately curious and hopeful about the world around her. What a concept.
The relatively plotless film is nonetheless shaped by Poppy’s conflict with her driving instructor, the repressed, aggressively misogynist and racist Scott (Marsan). Ostensibly her natural opposite, he challenges her good faith in people with his suspicions and paranoid recriminations. It would have been easy to turn the character into merely a gargoyle but his apparent emotion nakedness garners some kind of sympathy, and those less inclined to take the Poppy pill can hope that his manner will rub off and depress his inexhaustibly positive driving student. Her personality attracts if not changes Scott, and after the film one can either imagine him becoming even more violent having been spurned or reacting more thoughtfully having met someone like Poppy, their choice.
Mike Leigh is unabashedly an actor’s director, but his use of widescreen opens up his Britain to a wealth of experience, with Poppy and Scott as the magnetic poles keeping things stable, with Happy-Go-Lucky nonetheless gravitating toward Hawkins. Her frequently funny and affable portrayal never veers into cloying sainthood or makes Poppy an object of ridicule because the film continually tests her resolve. In her natural fit as a schoolteacher, she tries to help bullied and bullying boys as best she can but never makes a crusade out of it. It’s not that she never extends her good will outside her immediate surroundings; it’s that it’s clear that the outside world doesn’t want it. As much as she looks on the bright side, people like Scott and the rambling homeless man seemingly out of Leigh’s own Naked and her bickering sisters enter her orbit and she enters theirs and they both leave as barely different people. Stormclouds continually threaten the horizon even if they never actually come. Although the most drama and tension is wrung out of Poppy’s encounters with Scott, no sequence is given much precedence over another. This narrative freedom allows a fuller, more complex view of Poppy to be reached at the end, of a person who takes things as they come without sentiment, a lack of humor, or preconceptions. Anyone willing to give her a chance should be rewarded.