- Rated R
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All photos © Walt Disney
Reviewed by Bob Westal
he freewheeling heroine of this award-winning entry from Mike Leigh, England’s master of controlled cinematic improvisation, is intent on ensuring that her life will always be a comedy, but never a farce. We first meet Poppy (Sally Hawkins) drinking, dishing, and having silly fun with her friends. We soon learn, however, that while our 30-year-old protagonist is determined to have as much fun as possible, she’s anything but the irresponsible party girl she might seem. In fact, she’s a highly creative, exceptionally dedicated elementary schoolteacher – the kind we all wish we had. She’s also committed to learning, growing, and generally living her life as well as possible, while also being instinctively drawn to doing whatever she can to help out everyone she meets.
Her enormous reserves of empathy are put to the absolute test, however, when she meets a fellow educator of an entirely different sort: her driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan). He is an embittered, perpetually angry, and fearful bigot and conspiracy theorist who uses fractured bits of his vague, paranoid beliefs as mnemonic devices for teaching, such as the mysterious code word, “Enraha.” (Something to do with the “all seeing eye” atop the pyramid on the back of the U.S. dollar bill.) “It’s not easy being you,” Poppy tells him after one of his rages. She’s taken aback, but she sincerely means it. She finds Scott funny; all people with zero sense of humor are kind of funny. But she also feels his pain to some degree and sincerely wants to lessen it; she also wants to learn to drive.
Still, she gets on with her life, hanging out with the her roommate and beloved best pal Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), taking Flamenco classes from a dramatic Castilian (Karina Fernandez, milking her character’s accent for maximum comic effect), and dodging the usual questions about her lack of a boyfriend or property from certain family members, while endearing herself to just about everyone. That includes a troubled primary school bully (Jack MacGeachin), a troubled tramp (Stanley Townsend), and a romantically eligible social worker (Samuel Roukin). Even Scott, the angry white male driving instructor, is secretly obsessed with Poppy. Not surprisingly, his feelings for her (perhaps more envy than attraction) only make him all the angrier.
“Happy-Go-Lucky” is an intriguing new chapter in the evolution of director Mike Leigh. As art house aficionados already know, Leigh essentially enlists his actors as co-writers, assigning them characters, having them do massive amounts of research and back story creation, and then gradually shaping a detailed story from the results. Breaking out with 1988’s comic, bitterly anti-Thatcherite, “High Hopes,” it wasn’t all that surprising that a film like 1996’s “Secrets and Lies,” about contemporary family life and race relations, could prove to be a masterwork.
A few years later, his hugely entertaining and affectionate “Topsy Turvy” was another story. A historical backstage musical about the creation of Gilbert & Sullivan’s famed comic opera, “The Mikado,” it proved that Leigh’s technique had wider applications than anyone could imagine. Leigh crafted another strong period piece in “Vera Drake” in 2004, but its factual, tragic tale of an altruistic “back alley” abortionist in postwar London hewed fairly closely to the neorealist aesthetic.
On the other hand, this utterly contemporary film gets about as close to classic Hollywood-style film comedy as its maker can manage. “Happy-Go-Lucky” is Leigh’s first widescreen film, and the director is unafraid to coat his realism with a light candy glaze. Cinematographer Dick Pope pumps up the color volume in gorgeous fashion, while theater composer Gary Yershon’s bouncy lyricism ensures a lively, frothy mood. None of this is a distraction; our attention remains focused on the irrepressible Poppy.
Considering her level of personal freedom and charm, it’s no wonder that Sally Hawkin’s infectiously giddy (though also occasionally irritating) Poppy has been compared to such cinematic nymphs as Amelie and Holly Golightly of “Breakfast at Tiffany's.” Leigh rejects the comparison, however, pointing out that she is a great deal more thoughtful, grounded, and sensible than your standard cinematic nymph. For my part, however, I was reminded of my all-time favorite movie gamins – the tough-but-sweet title character of Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria” and her softer American cousin, Charity Hope Valentine of “Sweet Charity.” But the comparison breaks down just as quickly – Poppy is not only better educated, she’s no victim of love, or anything else.
Despite its looseness, “Happy-Go-Lucky” stays with you. And, as with all of Leigh’s films, it’s impossible to fault the acting. Certainly Sally Hawkins, who is in all but a very few scenes, earns her Oscar nomination, but Eddie Marsan also delivers a remarkably direct performance. Actually, there isn’t a single uninteresting acting note from any member of the large and endearing cast. It’s one crucial benefit of director Leigh’s unique method of making his actors full-fledged creators of their characters.
On the other hand, unlike “Secrets and Lies” and “Topsy Turvy,” this particular film does suffer more than a little from the downside of the Leigh technique, which is to say a lack of ordinary dramatic tension. Still, with the conflict between the perpetually aggrieved Scott and the empathetic, gag-loving Poppy, as well as her touching relationships with more receptive folks who can use her help, “Happy-Go-Lucky” has just enough of a spine to carry us through the slack patches.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
Miramax hasn’t exactly pulled all the stops out for this DVD, but there's more than enough here to justify a purchase. For starters, we have two video documentaries. One focuses on the unusual set-up Mike Leigh and Director of Photography Dick Pope put together to capture the lengthy automotive sequences featuring Eddie Marsan's half-crazed driving instructor. It’s a clever and thoughtful use of DV technology, enabling improvisation and obviating the need for a traditional camera car that other indie and non-indie directors will want to take a look at. This all-too brief feature is followed by an interesting, if slightly overlong, look at Leigh’s overall approach to making the film. There is also a commentary from Leigh, which is definitely worth a listen. (Note to my fellow obsessives: Leigh plays a bit of a mean trick on us when it comes to explaining the precise meaning of “Enraha,” instructing us to Google the word. When I tried it, instead of the promised arcana, all I could find were reviews, and discussions of the running gag from “Happy-Go-Lucky.”)