[29 January 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Poppy is what you would call “self-contained”. She exists within her own unique little universe, content to be a free thinking, free spirited 30 year old independent. She doesn’t balk at the thought of home and family, but finds the liberated looseness of her current life far more fulfilling. She adores her flatmate Zoe, defends her sister Suzy, dotes on the students in her elementary school class, and engulfs life with a kind of zeal matched only by her desire to do the same for others. Unfortunately, Poppy lives in post-millennial London, a city of dark secrets and even darker people. Still, as the star of Mike Leigh’s magnificent Happy-Go-Lucky, she’s always going to try and connect. It’s the reaction from those she’s reaching out to that’s far more telling.
As with many films by the UK maverick, there’s not much of a linear narrative. Actors are assigned character, motivation, and arcs. Improvisation provides the dialogue - long days of doing same offers up the episodic plot. As it stands, we start off with Poppy having her bicycle stolen. This inspires her to take driving lessons. This then puts her in direct conflict with her personal polar opposite - an angry and depressed instructor named Scott. Over the course of several lessons, she learns of the lonely man’s desperate feelings and random, racially inspired, conspiracy theories.
Later on, when a sullen student starts bullying another at school, Poppy investigates. This leads to the arrival of social worker Tim. Taken with his sexual allure and good natured demeanor, they begin to date. In between, Poppy attends some flamenco lessons with a coworker, spends time with her pal Zoe, visits her pregnant baby sister by the seaside, and even tries to talk with a clearly deranged homeless man. All they while, her personality is peppered with the kind of optimism that would seem silly on anyone else. Instead, it’s like the benediction from the world’s sweetest sage.
Indeed, this is the first major accomplishment of Happy-Go-Lucky. Leigh and his amazing actress Sally Hawkins (truly unforgettable here) never let Poppy become precocious. Sure, she’s perky and a little off putting, randomly cracking wise when all those around her want is seriousness and sensibility. But because we’ve been eased into the characters loopy visions, because her bounce is constantly countermanded by those dreaded post-modern ideals of cynicism and cheek, Poppy becomes a hero. Soon, we long to hear her harp on subjects she thinks demand brightening. Clearly, her roommate Zoe appreciates it. Even when taking the piss out of her pal, she appears drawn into her sunny sphere of influence. It’s the same with morose lost sibling Suzy. Mousy, mouthy, and a little unkempt, all it takes is a word from Poppy and all is suddenly sane.
The main conflict arrives with the outsiders our heroine has to relate to - the most difficult being sour driving instructor Scott. Played with a real sense of pain by Eddie Marsan, this hate-spewing example of male dominance disorder lives by suspicion and fear. He uses said emotions as a means of mocking everything around him, usually in offensive or demeaning ways. When Poppy tries to lighten the mood, he turns even more unbalanced. By the end, we no longer know if he’s truly infatuated with her, or just looking for someone to rage at. During their final scene together, Hawkins and Marsan deliver a magnificent example of humanity on the verge of an acknowledged nervous breakdown. For Scott, it’s his last chance at glimpsing his “student’s” eternal optimism. For Poppy, it’s coming face to face with the horrors of existence that she’s long put out of her head.
Early own, Leigh takes a calculated risk. Poppy enters into a bookshop and sees a title referring to a “trip into reality”. “We’re not going there,” she grins, before trying to chat up the clerk. There is indeed a part of Happy-Go-Lucky which could be read as delusional. Poppy acts up constantly, taking on the emotional face of her fiery dance instructor, bopping with an abandon that suggests insanity. There’s even a tell-all scene where she spends several minutes trying to decipher a homeless man’s rant. All the while, as he asks “you understand?”, she whispers back “Of course I do.” And she means it. But Poppy isn’t crazy. She’s committed. She believes in her way of life and won’t let anyone else convince her otherwise.
Leigh helps by peppering the film with details that suggest Poppy isn’t some naïve neophyte. She tells an intriguing tale about traveling the world, teaching everywhere from Australia to Thailand. In the classroom, she’s proficient and polished, capable of capturing the children’s attention with her wealth of imagination and compassion. Even when her pregnant sister suggests that she isn’t playing by the rules, Poppy argues the validity of such stigmas. All throughout Happy-Go-Lucky, our heroine is not seen as a halfwit or hair brain. Instead Leigh lets us know that this is a conscious choice on the part of her personality. She just doesn’t want to live in a world of suffering and the acceptance of same.
Like anyone given over to giggling more than griping, Poppy - and as an indirect result, Happy-Go-Lucky - slowly becomes addictive. We want more scenes showing our heroine handling her bubbly business with wit and amicable aplomb. We want more moments of Scott’s slow self-destruction, and Poppy’s quite, reflective reaction to same. We want to see Zoe and her closest confident as friends, be it sheltering each other in the quiet of their flat, or rowing across a lake on a sunny London day. But mostly, we need more of this character’s comforting openness. She doesn’t need, she only wants to be needed. It brings out the best in her. Even when communication is next to impossible, Poppy is still willing to try. Such earnestness is hard to hate, and when provided by an artist as solid as Leigh, the results are ridiculously good.
In the end, however, there’s very little resolution. Poppy probably doesn’t believe in closure. Instead, for her, life is an endless buffet of possibilities - and she’ll eventually get around to sampling each and every one. Her compassion is matched only by her honesty, and to that extent, she is a rare member of the human race indeed. There are times when Happy-Go-Lucky appears larger than life, when someone like Poppy looks like a loon. Perhaps it’s because we’re not used to such a simplistic approach to things. In our world, existence is a complicated and undeniable thankless chore. But not for Poppy. She’s glad to be so blithe in soul and spirit. It’s a lesson we can learn from this sly, sensible teacher - and the amazing artists who brought her to life.