No Girl So Sweet and ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’

2008-10-10 (Limited release)

When I first saw the trailer for Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, I think I might have actually rolled my eyes heavenward and whined, to no one in particular, “argh. British Amelie.”

I had more than one chance to see it at the Toronto Film Festival and skipped it, despite the raves from fellow journalists and critics, and also despite the fact the film’s leading lady, Sally Hawkins, scored the prestigious Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlinale.

I was clearly avoiding the film and the sanguinity I (wrongly) felt it was espousing. In retrospect, I should have known better. This was a “Mike Leigh” movie after all, right? He is the man who made such unsparing modern masterpieces as Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake, and perhaps darkest and most dour of them all, the brilliant Naked. It is an unwritten rule of being a film fan to just go ahead and trust this auteur. But still, I resisted.

Then, slowly, everyone I know was talking about this film, this performance, and this “Poppy” character created by Hawkins. Some of the people whose opinions I trust most on matters of such importance as women in film were trumpeting Happy-Go-Lucky and Hawkins’ performance as a coup de maitre. Hawkins blossomed into an international critical darling. Could everyone be wrong? It was high time to grudgingly relent to the tidal wave of goodwill virtually swelling around this sweet little picture. I was still hell-bent on hating this for being a happy movie. I had the knives of cynicism sharpened, gleaming and ready to slice. I entered the theater ready to kick the film’s happy little (figurative) behind, critically speaking.

Turns out Happy-Go-Lucky is actually the finest film I have seen all year. I saw it three times in one week and fell passionately in love with it.

I am a bad, bad person. You could maybe even call me a “Scott”.

Like many other (unjustly) unyielding critics, I wrongly mistook the film’s trademark brand of optimism for simplistic whimsy, its bright originality for grating quirk. In other words, I was wrong. Unlike most of these other critics, though, I actually am pleased when my own preconceptions are challenged and ultimately shattered. When films or performers make me completely change my (usually stubborn) opinion, I am reminded of the power of the medium to influence the creative process of others and to generally inspire.

It is also a reminder that, as a critic, you must always keep an open mind and an open heart when viewing films, and often times one’s bullheadedness can be fully cured by such effervescent characters as Poppy and such sharp new choices from Leigh’s already expansive arsenal of directorial weapons. You have got to be fair. Like it or not. In squashing one journalist’s cynicism, it seems Poppy and Leigh have indeed won this battle.

The film is, at times, a painterly love letter to filmmaking, and to being young, creative and adrift, eking out a peacefully meager existence in the city. Happy-Go-Lucky is an imbroglio of sweetness and skill that emanates in warm waves. Like a much-needed springtime breeze after a cruel winter spent indoors watching Hollywood awards bait, if you will. If that makes the whole affair sound overly corny or cloying, banish the thought: Happy-Go-Lucky is nice, yes, but also intellectually stimulating, clear, and rewarding.

There is a wiry, challenging energy running throughout the film and the performances contained within it; setting a decidedly modern, crackling pace. In fact, Leigh’s reinvention of his own style, albeit ever so subtle a variation, is as equally invigorating as Hawkins’ acting. Painting with jeweled-hued splashes of pigment reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s fizzy Stage and Spectacle trilogy, Leigh turns gray London into an appropriately bright alternate universe for his near-mythic heroine.

Poppy is part of a magnificent bloodline of fully-realized female characters that populate Leigh’s oeuvre (amongst his other triumphs? Oscar nominees Brenda Blethyn in Secrets and Lies and Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake are just the tip of the iceberg). Rounded at the edges, expressive and an expert blend of theatrical “bigness” and realism, primary school teacher Poppy is one of the most original characters of this decade, so far. Leigh’s rendering of her is, in every sense of the word, magical.

From the shiny red plastic cherry necklace to a floor to ceiling, dip-dyed yarn map of the world in Poppy’s classroom, Leigh playfully introduces his character amidst a blizzard of textures and colors and sketches her as a modern rock fairy tale princess. Pop-art patterns on clothing and fabrics and bubbles of fuchsias, reds and yellows mimic the brightness of Poppy’s infectious, unmistakable laughter. The rusty steel and crumbly brick industrialism of London, then, acts as a reminder that reality in Poppy’s neighborhood can sometimes be bruising.

The typical six month rehearsal period, the London milieu, the total immersion into character and the patented “Mike Leigh” artistic process are some of the components that indicate this is a “Mike Leigh” movie. Tonally and stylistically, the very force that drives Happy-Go-Lucky feels like the work of a reborn artist-turned-teacher. There is an artful crispness to Leigh’s vision as well as a gorgeously cinematic blend of romanticism, humor and kitchen sink realism. Though the film is partly about goodness and its place in contemporary urban multiculturalism, Leigh still finds a way to make Poppy’s exuberance seem almost edgy, like a natural act of rebellion, or even a type of crusade for its central figure.

A woman who chooses, despite being repeatedly stepped on, to live a life filled with an honestly buoyant spirit, Poppy is infallible, much to the chagrin of cynical film critics everywhere. When we first encounter her, Poppy is riding a bicycle, ebulliently. Hawkins lures the viewer in during the first few seconds of the film as she pedals through town, smile firmly asserted, the sun flickering on her face, the wind tousling her hair. Not even having said bike stolen from her will bring her down and she laughs off the crime as if it were no big deal because she has been putting off taking driving lessons.

Next, we see her drunk and dancing to Pulp’s “Common People” at a club with her pals as though nothing ever happened. The inventiveness of Hawkins’ whip-smart performance is boundless and each little clue she gives the viewer reveals another layer of depth and history, another shade in Poppy’s already vivacious day-glo color scheme (Hawkins particularly excels in the scene where she recounts her travels to a colleague). As we begin to understand more about the character and the purity of her motives, a miracle occurs: Poppy becomes honestly endearing.

But what happens to those who care too much? In her electric relationship with driving school instructor nightmare Scott (the stellar Eddie Marsan), in her scenes with an abused child from her class, and in an awkward encounter with her tightly-wound, pregnant suburbanite sister, Poppy shows that nothing will break her, that people who care too much will be just fine, in fact, they will be better than you think. She will not be brought down so far as to be unhappy or unpleasant. She is an aging new wave gamine who bounces from day to day with a blithe spirit intact no matter what size obstacles cross her path.

And she is far from a simpleton. Nothing this year has made me laugh harder than the flamenco lesson scenes (“It is very Spanish to be late…” coos the instructor played hysterically by Karina Fernandez), and the single thing that has made me shed a tear at the movies this year was the aforementioned gentle scene with her pupil.

Lest she seem like an insufferable saint by this point, Leigh and Hawkins add into the mix diffused notes of earnestness and a sense of resoluteness, fully fleshing out the character’s robust make-up, in turn, imbuing Happy-Go-Lucky even more with the feeling of a fable or a myth. Poppy is a wonder to behold when she is enjoying a happy moment for herself, as most of her boundless energy is normally directed towards helping others. This glow radiates when she shares a tender date with school social worker Tim (Samuel Roukin), when she’s jumping on the trampoline, or merely when she steals a dreamy gaze at the salmon-pink afternoon sky as the foliage rustles.

Leigh chooses to culminate Poppy’s journey with a final long shot set in a row boat that is simply as breathtaking as a mottled impressionist painting, thanks in great measure to Pope’s languidly-paced camera and his use of natural light.

Little private moments like these are stitched together with Crayola-bright threads to make a charming film that feels like hand-made high art, yet it never once veers towards being maudlin or pretentious. Simply put, Happy-Go-Lucky is a triumph in a dispassionate season and my favorite film of year. I will never again roll my eyes at anything Leigh releases. Lesson learned. Poppy would be proud.