Sally Hawkins’ performance in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky is so free and sweet, so spontaneously unmannered and joyfully unaffected, that I found myself looking at her feet in various scenes. Were they really on the ground or was she walking on pure sunshine? She seems that liberated from the gravitas of earthly concerns.
Writer/director Leigh, who can be pretty serious-minded and even dour in some of his movies about working-class British life (Vera Drake, Secrets and Lies, Naked), deserves praise for letting go and embracing Hawkins’ spirited youthful vibe as much as he does. He’s no youngster, after all — he’s 65. Leigh’s films all have an improvisational quality, since he allows actors work out their scenes and develop rapport before actual filming. That’s one reason they so often net Academy Award nominations for acting.
But if only he’d gone one step further and ditched a major subplot about Hawkins’ character’s impact on a decidedly unhappy (and borderline psychotic) driving instructor. It goes on too long, and to increasingly less reward.
Hawkins, 32, is a Royal Academytrained actress who has had notable supporting roles such films as Layer Cake, Cassandra’s Dream and Leigh’s Vera Drake. Here she plays Poppy, a North London schoolteacher who dresses like she buys all her threads and jewelry at bazaars in Katmandu or Casablanca. They are colorful, but only half as much so as her optimistic smile and warm, surprised laugh.
Hawkins’ Poppy is a kind of one-person utopia. She has a way of taking the edge off almost any social interaction with a self-deprecating self-awareness — a running commentary — that seduces all but the most steadfast hostility.
Indeed, Poppy seems hurt when her innate friendliness and good cheer is met with brusqueness. As the film opens, she has stopped her bicycle outside a bookstore — traditionally a friendly business — and is downright shaken when the churlish clerk isn’t welcoming. You can see how Leigh’s trust in rehearsal-stage improvisation makes seemingly mundane scenes like this interesting. Poppy keeps pushing for recognition, keeps trying to chisel away at the clerk’s stone-faced front. As she does, the scene keeps developing and opening up.
Energy, itself, can be drama — the energy of a fluid, lively camera style (Dick Pope, a Leigh regular), of the workingclass world of Poppy and her friends and fellow teachers and of Hawkins’ acting. It doesn’t need lots of plot.
Among those orbiting Poppy’s world are her wry roommate/closest friend/fellow teacher Zoe (Alexis Zegerman, playing Rhoda Morgenstern to Hawkins’ Mary Richards); her younger and more volatile sister Suzy (Kate O’Flynn), toward whom she is gently supportive; a flamenco teacher (Karina Fernandez) so intensely emotional she blurts out to class about her rotten husband; even the friendly doctor who tries to straighten her bad back as Poppy smiles away with complete ease. In one strange scene, Poppy even feels compelled to follow a muttering, unpredictable homeless man (Stanley Townsend), showing an empathy that is, given the circumstances, courageous.
You could probably write a good college thesis on the damaged (male) souls populating the landscape of Mike Leigh’s films. That homeless man is certainly one; the most memorable for me is Ricky in Career Girls. In Happy-Go-Lucky, Leigh has come up with another who ultimately comes on too strong for the film’s tone.
It’s Scott (Eddie Marsan), Poppy’s temperamental driving instructor who has bad teeth, racist sentiments and crude social skills. Her very happiness seems to unhinge him. Their relationship is meant, one supposes, to test Poppy’s upbeat faith in mankind, and Marsan is so good that one sees glimmers of Scott’s redemptive qualities. But he also has qualities so wild, cruel and dangerous that it tests the audience’s credibility that Poppy, however nice, would tolerate repeated driving lessons with him. After all, she has common sense.
Scott’s presence in this movie is like dropping Ann Hathaway’s troubled Kym into the middle of the otherwise-ecstatic bliss that is Rachel Getting Married. It seems a directorial imposition — a dramatic crutch — on a film that doesn’t need it. One wishes Poppy could have charmed Leigh out of including it. Grade: B
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