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Savant's favorite film from 2008 is Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, a wonderful character drama that critics seem determined to characterize as a simple comedy. Even the DVD packaging calls it a "joyous, feel-good film" and the title artwork is decorated with cherries, as in "Life is but a bowl of ...". Actually, criticizing the marketers isn't fair, for Happy-Go-Lucky has an impact that's difficult to describe. I can't recommend it highly enough.
Mike Leigh has been directing films for almost forty years and has an even more prestigious record as a stage director. A believer in improvisation, he normally has his actors study and "live" their characters for months before cameras roll. In some cases they start without a script, only Leigh's story outline. I've seen several of his pictures and associate him with hard-bitten dramas about working class life in socialist England, where opportunities are scarce and poverty is the norm. Naked is about desperate drifters and lost souls, and is anything but uplifting. His last film, Vera Drake is a tragedy about abortion set in the 1950s. Not exactly fun stuff.
In Happy-Go-Lucky we meet the wonderful Poppy (Sally Hawkins, equally wonderful), a primary schoolteacher who refuses to meet the gloom and negativity of the day with a sour face. Blessed with limitless energy, Poppy walks with a bounce, more often than not with a smile on her face (make that a big smile). She directly addresses everyone she meets, and if her greetings are ignored she'll make funny remarks. She's not crazy and her remarks are teases, not reprimands. To some degree it's as if Poppy carries her Kindergarten persona out into the public. In actuality, she likes living, wants to communicate her joy, and doesn't care what people think of her.
Some critics simply don't understand a character devoid of cynicism, who are open about their feelings. I've just read one who tells us that Poppy appears at first to be mentally ill. Happy-Go-Lucky makes a good case for Poppy as a heroic beacon of sanity. The movie is consistently funny but also has plenty to say about how we relate to one another.
Poppy lives with her girlfriend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) and tries to keep the peace with her two sisters, one moody and immature and the other a young married compelled to criticize Poppy's single lifestyle. Poppy has no interest in taking on a mortgage and more responsibility, at least not yet, and tries to make light of it all. The movie opens with a group of what appear to be four working girls in loud clothing partying, drinking and carousing together. Then we realize that they're not school dropouts but highly educated professionals. Poppy and Zoe work with little tots and take the job very seriously. They help the kids to make bird costumes out of paper so they can all hop around together in the classroom and express themselves. It's not nonsense, it's an important creative and socializing activity.
Poppy's no Goody Two Shoes and no Pollyanna, which is where Happy-Go-Lucky parts company with standard pop fantasies about "magical" optimists that turn negative situations into blessed ones -- like, say, the insipid Christy TV series. Poppy isn't perfect. She can be a motor mouth and her teasing can be vulgar, depending on the chemistry of the moment. She's intensely loyal to her girlfriends and colleagues. She releases energy by trampolining at the gym, and joins a flamenco class on the recommendation of a friend. There we see a variety of London women following the instructions of an intense Spanish dancer determined to instill them with fiery gypsy pride. Poppy loves every minute of it but has difficulty wiping the silly grin from her face. She narrows her eyes and tries to act feral, but she's just not the savage type. As with the rest of the movie, it's character-driven hilarity.
The film's main conflict is much more serious. Poppy takes driving lessons from Scott (Eddie Marsan of Hancock), a bitter, spiteful man crawling with anti-social complexes and attitudes. Scott demands instant obedience and constantly loses his temper; when not shouting his inane check-the-mirrors drill ("En Ra Ha!") he spills out poisoned opinions about racial superiority, the "rigged" English society and mysterious cabals conspiring to oppress him. Scott is wound far too tightly, to say the least. Poppy's unfortunate response is to tease him even further, making mildly suggestive jokes and laughing when he condescendingly tells her she shouldn't be wearing boots to drive: "Will do, Captain Scott! Here we go, gigolo!" It's a serious personality mismatch, as Poppy can't help but bring out the worst in her instructor. Interestingly, Scott's inner fury parallels a maladjusted kid in Poppy's classroom, who insists on beating up on another boy. Poppy observes this gravely from a window, as if recognizing the ubiquity of human violence. She calls in a special counselor. As it turns out, there is trouble in the boy's family; a new man in the house may be beating him.
Scott shows signs of being a serious sociopath, which turns Happy-Go-Lucky in a decidedly non-comedic direction. He gets the notion that Poppy's idle teasing is a come-on, and freaks out when he finds her dating Tim (Samuel Roukin), the handsome social worker. Suddenly Scott's accusing Poppy of being a whore and a lesbian and a cruel tease, and he begins driving like a madman. Poppy's not the solution for every situation, and is definitely the wrong person to reach Scott. She has little choice but to oppose him as she would an out-of-control pupil. But how dangerous is Scott? That's when we remember the downbeat endings of other Mike Leigh films and hope to heaven that our glorious Poppy will come through in one piece..
One scary scene points back to Leigh pictures like Naked. At night in a rather iffy neighborhood, Poppy steps into a vacant lot to talk to a homeless, stuttering tramp (Stanley Townsend). She spends several minutes trying to connect with this guy, who might very well be dangerous. That's the essence of Poppy's character. She's driven to go out of her way to relate to people, even when risk is involved. I don't think I've seen a movie about a "cockeyed optimist" that was this realistic. Poppy doesn't conquer the world with a smile. She has to face the same disappointments and general negativity we all do, and she's a very strong person. Conversely, the closed-off, uptight Scott is an extreme example of an opposite approach. Scott builds walls and guards them fiercely, and expects people to conform to his egocentric view of the world. It isn't immediately apparent, but Poppy's "silly" philosophy of openness is vastly preferable.
Happy-Go-Lucky is a delight from one end to the other. Poppy and her friends speak in a sometimes-impenetrable North London argot, which kept our ears on edge in the theater. Fortunately, the disc has both English and Spanish subtitles in case we get really confused. The art direction and costuming are eccentric to say the least; as Poppy says, she dresses the way she does to feel good. The movie is special because it's about a philosophy as much as it is a character. Poppy would never impose herself on others or hold herself up as a role model, but the world could use about fifty million more of her.
Miramax has cheated us by not issuing a Blu-ray of Happy-Go-Lucky but this DVD is a fine enhanced encoding of the colorful widescreen film. Mike Leigh contributes a thoughtful and affectionate commentary. Leigh's description of the versatile Eddie Marsan makes me want to seek out more of the actor's work. Leigh, Marsdan, Sally Hawkins and cameraman Dick Pope take part in two documentaries. Behind the Wheel shows how the tiny Ford Focus driver's instruction car was rigged with seven cameras and a full sound setup, allowing Marsdan and Hawkins to do all of their car scenes entirely "for real". Happy-In-Character allows Hawkins, Marsden and Alexis Zegerman to analyze the contradictions of their roles and comment on their director's intense preparation methods. Leigh had them build biographies for their characters, as Hawkins describes, right from birth onward.
The artwork on the packaging and menus treat the show like an episode of Sesame Street, which doesn't capture the movie's emotional depth. I've read several reviews that just don't seem to "get" the picture, when to me it's the culmination of the school of "character drives the plot" filmmaking -- we feel we're learning useful lessons about living with each other. The cover art billboards the delightful Sally Hawkins' Best Actress Win at the Golden Globes. I'll be looking forward to her next picture.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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