Happy-Go-Lucky: Mike Leigh’s Look at Happiness, Starring Brilliant Sally Hawkins

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Deceptively lighthearted, celebrated writer-director Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” is utterly lovely, a sober-minded look at the difficulties of maintaining happiness when the modern world offers so many potent obstacles to that objective.

Boasting a gutsy, loopy performance from Sally Hawkins, this comedy-drama character piece effortlessly examines the struggles of working-class citizens with a compassionate but clear-eyed perspective that is both refreshing and unexpectedly poignant.

Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a single 30-year-old London schoolteacher with a bubbly, flighty personality. While she’s quite good at her job– playful with her young pupils but clearly in charge–she doesn’t seem to take the rest of her life that seriously, hitting clubs with friends and showing no interest in settling down. Poppy is the ultimately happy-go-lucky gal, and while her free-spirited ways may annoy grumpy strangers, her friends clearly adore her.

But Poppy’s worldview receives a major test in the form of Scott (Eddie Marsan), a bigoted, angry driving instructor who doesn’t just want to teach her the rules of the road but also wants to make her realize that life isn’t as wonderful as she thinks. Meanwhile at school, a difficult student challenges the tranquility of her class, bringing into her orbit a handsome social worker named Tim (Samuel Roukin) who catches her fancy.

Mike Leigh’s films, such as the Oscar-nominated “Vera Drake” and “Secrets & Lies,” are known for their extensive pre-production in which the director and his cast work out the story and characters through a series of improvisations. Consequently, Leigh generally elicits lifelike performances that, while occasionally mannered, evoke a sense of how ordinary people go about their day.

Thankfully, “Happy-Go-Lucky” has fewer of those mannered moments than many of Leigh’s recent films, which is helpful since the movie’s central performance is such a high-wire act that it requires an understated supporting cast for it to succeed.

Sally Hawkins (who appeared in Leigh’s “Vera Drake” and “All or Nothing”) envisions Poppy as a real handful. Though she’s a good-hearted, optimistic person, Poppy can be annoyingly cutesy and immature. In a lesser film, Poppy’s free-spirited attitude would be wholly embraced, but Leigh and Hawkins allow us to see that while her irreverent, jokey attitude toward life can be charming, it also masks insecurities and a fear of growing up. “Happy-Go-Lucky” accomplishes that rare thing of allowing a difficult main character to be complicated without ever rendering a judgment on that person.

Through its restraint, the film uses this odd, funny woman as a springboard for a larger discussion on the merits of happiness. Does being happy mean being stupidly blind to the cruelty of the world Or is it that because the world has so much misery in it, we have to choose to be happy in order to survive

In past Leigh films, working-class characters could sometimes feel like archetypes, but Poppy is a true original: a ditzy, funny, sometimes maddening woman who never arrives at some clich?©d grand realization about herself during “Happy-Go-Lucky” but who is clearly going through a transitional point in her life. Hawkins plays her as a force of nature, but there¬ís nothing showy about the performance, and much of the fun in the role is discovering how Poppy will respond to the unfolding events around her.

“Happy-Go-Lucky” may not appear to have a very strong narrative, but as the movie moves along, the separate strands that make up Poppy’s life come together in touching, unexpected ways. For example, an incident involving a troublesome boy in her class at first seems unimportant, but it soon takes on a greater significance to the film’s overall plot and underlying themes.

Even the ongoing driving instructions and worldview debates conducted by Poppy and Scott don¬ít play out as one would expect, instead finding a more emotional resolution that gets to the heart of how much Poppy’s happy-go-lucky outlook is a mask and how much it¬ís the essence of her thoughtful, kind-hearted personality.

As good as Hawkins is, she’s matched by Marsan’s performance as her bitter, lonely driving instructor. The setup might be a little too perfect–she¬ís a glowing optimist, he’s a cranky pessimist–but their ongoing conversations, all done during their weekly lessons, have a lively back-and-forth energy as the film gives serious consideration to both viewpoints. Such debates require two well-matched combatants, and Marsan is up to the task, supplying Scott with ugly racist tendencies but also insights into how someone can become so angry at the world. As with Poppy, Leigh doesn’t make Scott easy to define, and so we watch him interact with this woman who’s his polar opposite as he’s intrigued but also repulsed by her demeanor.

The rest of the supporting cast is almost uniformly strong. Samuel Roukin does good work as Poppy’s potential suitor, Alexis Zegerman makes for a fun foil as Poppy’s roommate Zoe, and Karina Fernandez is a strong presence as a fiery flamenco instructor. The only glaring misstep is Stanley Townsend as a hobo Poppy meets one evening; the character is a clich?©d device that adds a surreal touch to the proceedings that’s completely incongruous with the rest of this naturalistic film.

For a film so wrapped up in happiness, “Happy-Go-Lucky” ends up feeling quite poignant. With Poppy as our guide, we see how daily life presents us with so many reasons to fall into cynicism and despair, clutching to other people’s ideas of contentment rather than being true to ourselves. Leigh is wise enough to realize that a sunny disposition isn¬ít enough to combat all those negative forces, but it’s clear that while he views Poppy with a bit of cockeyed affection, there’s something oddly heroic about her as well. Even at the end, she may have her flaws, but she’s still willing to be happy.

As the movie demonstrates, there’s a certain courage in such a stance, and the fragility of that mindset gives “Happy-Go-Lucky” its considerable emotional power.

Cast

Sally Hawkins (Poppy)
Eddie Marsan (Scott)
Alexis Zegerman (Zoe)
Kate O’Flynn (Suzy)
Karina Fernandez (Flamenco Teacher)
Caroline Martin (Helen)
Samuel Roukin (Tim)
Stanley Townsend (Tramp)

Credits

Distributor: Miramax Films
Production Companies: Summit Entertainment, Ingenious Film Partners, Film 4, UK Film Council
Producer: Simon Channing Williams
Executive Producers: James Clayton, David Garrett, Duncan Reid, Tessa Ross, Gail Egan
Director: Mike Leigh
Screenplay: Mike Leigh
Cinematography: Dick Pope
Editor: Jim Clark
Music: Gary Yershon
Production design: Mike Tildesley

Running time: 118 minutes