I've had a few hours now to digest Happy-Go-Lucky, the latest film from the always interesting British director Mike Leigh, and I'm still not quite sure what, exactly, to make of it. There is no doubt that it is well done, that it is unique, and that Sally Hawkins is just wonderful in its leading role. And yet I'm still not quite sure what exactly Leigh is doing here; he's made a slice-of-life movie that wanders from scene to scene, often aimlessly, compiling a series of fine moments that seem, more often than not, to stand alone. If that's what he was going for, then bravo. But from the standpoint of what we think of as narrative storytelling, it sort of runs around in circles for two hours.
Hawkins plays Poppy, a relentlessly cheery and unfailingly optimistic grade school teacher. She lives in London with a flatmate who she adores, she rides her bike and takes flamenco lessons, and she generally enjoys her life. When she gets a back injury, it's from jumping too much on a trampoline, and even then she takes near-orgasmic pleasure in the skill and kindness of her chiropractor.
You can see how it's a tricky role; without the right actress, the character of Poppy could be irritating, ridiculous, or both. Hawkins manages, in scene after scene, to find just the right note, primarily by understanding the varying levels of cheeriness that she is capable of, and how to best interact with the different people in her life.
Perhaps her biggest challenge is Scott (Eddie Marsan), the tightly-bottled man who has the admittedly unenviable job of giving Poppy driving lessons. Scott is bitter, angry, rigid, and borderline dictatorial in the passenger seat; one cannot think of a more polar opposite to our heroine. At first we think Leigh is creating some kind of an odd couple that will end up falling for each other--particularly when watching the early scene where he explains the pedals, a mundane exercise that their crisp dialogue and crackerjack timing elevates quickly into a scene of high comedy. But over the course of the film we find out more and more about Scott, and we realize that Leigh is up to something darker than that.
That thread leads to a genuine conclusion, with a difficult and honest scene of confession and candor that is one of the best in the picture. But other scenes seem to exist primarily in and of themselves, like Poppy's encounter with a lonely homeless man. It's a lovely little moment, but it doesn't really go anywhere and doesn't tell us anything about her that we don't already know.
Leigh is famous for his unique working method; he reportedly puts a cast together with only the faintest idea for a story, and then spends weeks working with his actors to develop the characters and how they interact, crafting his screenplays out of their ideas and extended improvisations. As a result, his dialogue scenes are especially naturalistic, and the performances are well-developed and believable. But this style is a tightrope act; building a fully-formed story can be a difficult task when done on the fly. When it works, it does so magnificently (see his Best Picture nominee Secrets & Lies). When he doesn't quite pull it off, well, there is still much to admire. But the viewer does wonder what these characters and performances could have accomplished in the context of a more compelling narrative.
Leigh's films have a tendency to work in a fairly flat palette, but he and cinematographer Dick Pope (The Illusionist) deliberately went bigger and broader this time, to match the sunny disposition of the lead character. As a result, the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is lovely; blacks are rich, colors pop, skin tones are natural and contrast is on the money. The interiors are a little on the drab side, so it certainly isn't a demo disc, but it does the job well.
We're given a 5.1 mix, but the center channel gets most of the play in this chatty movie, with surrounds only engaged for passing traffic in the driving scenes. However, that center channel is mixed quite low, and I found myself jockeying the remote quite a bit in the opening scenes in order to make out the dialogue while not letting the music blast out the speakers.
Mike Leigh provides a running Audio Commentary to the feature, though he seems to not understand that most viewers will watch it after viewing the film; he drops out for long periods to avoid talking over the dialogue, and spends much of the first act narrating rather than informing ("Who is she?" "Why does she gravitate towards the children's books?" "She's still being friendly..."). There is some interesting information here, but you've got to sift through a lot of filler to get to it.
"Behind the Wheel of Happy-Go-Lucky" (4:26) is a brief featurette focusing on the driving lessons--their importance to the story, and the (admittedly interesting) particulars of how they were shot. Longer and more in-depth, "Happy-In-Character" (27:14) details the origins of the project, Leigh's unorthodox working method, and the making of the film.
As a conventional narrative, Happy-Go-Lucky doesn't work at all; it plays more like a series of vignettes (albeit well-written and marvelously-acted ones). But taken on its own terms, as a low-key character study, it is quite engaging, with moments of gentle humor and genuine power. It's far from perfect, but there's plenty to recommend all the same.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.