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Mike Leigh lightens up in Happy-Go-Lucky
By PETER KEOUGH  |  January 12, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for Happy-Go-Lucky

Happy-Go-Lucky | Written and Directed by Mike Leigh | with Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zeferman, Caroline Martin, Kate O’Flynn, and Samuel Roukin | Miramax Films | 118 minutes
There might be a dark side to Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the driving force behind Mike Leigh’s new film Happy-Go-Lucky, but damned if I could find it. Other Leigh protagonists have been chipper, like grinning Imelda Staunton as the title character in Vera Drake (2004) — but then she was also an illegal abortionist. But Poppy is a North London primary-school teacher, the kind who gets even more involved in making bird costumes than do her pupils, and nothing dims her high-beam optimism and bemusement, not even the cold stares of the annoyed and indifferent.

That latter category could include a fair share of the audience, and a lot of the pleasure in this exuberant ode to joy depends on your delight in, or at least tolerance of, Sally Hawkins’s tour-de-force performance. (It bowled me over.) Thirty, single, and a hard partier, Poppy is a handful, from her perpetual giggles (each one expressing a variation of high spirits — inquisitive, compassionate, ironic, anxious) to her eye-numbing wardrobe (a cross between Cyndi Lauper and Frida Kahlo, with an emphasis on high-heeled boots). And she’s in every frame — though, as she bops from one episodic encounter to the next, she shares it with an entertaining collection of other oddballs and wet blankets. That includes her fellow teacher, flatmate, and BFF Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), who tries to bring a common-sense balance to Poppy’s ebullient naïveté. But Poppy’s a 21st-century Georgy Girl, and unlike Lynn Redgrave’s plucky ’60s misfit, she will prevail through the power of pure goodness and a weekly session on a trampoline.

What could go wrong in this best of all Mike Leigh movie worlds? He provides a semblance of dramatic conflict by having Poppy’s bike get stolen just after the opening credits. (“I didn’t even get to say goodbye to you,” she laments in one of her many anthropomorphisms.) So she decides to do the grown-up thing and learn how to drive. Enter Poppy’s antithesis, Scott (Eddie Marsan), who resembles the visionary misanthrope played by David Thewlis in Naked had he entered a fundamentalist cult, joined the National Front, moved in with his mother, and become a driving instructor.

Poppy’s facetiousness and footwear don’t go over well with Scott, who with each lesson grows increasingly furious, paranoid, and creepy. Poppy can’t get enough of it: she’s determined to crack Scott’s noxiously racist, sexually fucked-up, tartar-toothed shell to find the lonely little boy within. Because there is such a boy in Poppy’s class, and she and Tim (Samuel Roukin), the school’s hunky social worker, have traced the lad’s problems back to his mum’s mean boyfriend. Case solved! And now she and Tim can jump in the sack together!

That rosy scenario, plus a visit to the miserable bungalow of Poppy’s married, pregnant, embittered, self-righteous sister, suggests that beneath the jolly laughs, wonderfully engaging setpieces (a tipsy post-clubbing gabfest is hilarious), poignant confrontations (a midnight chat with a crazy homeless person is spooky), and Poppy’s irrepressible serotonin might lie not darkness but glibness. In the context of the trite dichotomy (bourgeois oppression, religious intolerance, child abuse are bad; nonconformity, open-mindedness, childlike behavior are good) that the film implies, Scott’s dark obsessions almost make sense.

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