Tuesday, October 14, 2008


"Always look on the bright side of life," Monty Python's Eric Idle once sang while being crucified on a cross. It's an ethos director Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky thrives upon, while providing one of the warmest, funniest, deeply affectionate and surprisingly affecting film characters of the year. Driven by the infectiously effervescent performance of Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky posits a delightful overly well-adjusted London school teacher in a cynical world of anger and pessimism (i.e., our world) and lets her run amok with boundless enthusiasm. The anti-Amélie in some respects, Happy-Go-Lucky threads the fine line of whimsy without being whimsical; saccharine, but not too sweet.

plays the appropriately named Poppy, an irrepressible force of kinetic energy who just doesn't mind being thirty years-old, single, and living with a roommate for over ten years while her younger siblings and contemporaries get married and pregnant, wary of their waning childbearing years. Poppy loves life, and isn't ashamed of her unassailable joy. When her beloved bicycle is stolen, she doesn't explode into a fit of rage, but laments not saying goodbye and decides to take driving lessons. Unlike Amélie's flights of ethereal fancy, she's grounded in Leigh's favorite working class backdrop.

Poppy's confrontations with her emotionally unhinged driving instructor Scott (a pitch perfect Eddie Marsan) serve as the film's centerpiece; her hope and happiness struck head on by the damaged animosity driven reality of Scott's. We see Hawkins' smile fade, her sunny disposition falter into a flustered moment of fear. Yet unlike a facade that finally relishes its moment to break off and give way to deep seated anger, she's composed and patient, measured and secure in her convictions.

In other hands, Happy-Go-Lucky could have easily slipped into sentimental schmaltz, but Leigh lets Poppy react to conflict with an ease that's both alluring and unassuming. His trademark improvisational style allows Poppy's world to unfold naturally, as her back story isn't literally outlined on screen, but through Hawkins' revealing subtlety. Under the giggles is a glimpse of doubt, under the next round of drinks a need to feel connected.

Much like Leigh's prior works such as Vera Drake, High Hopes or the more closely related Career Girls, the cast is given a personal stake in their characters, not just finding their motivations but helping create and shape their journeys. This collaborative energy is felt on screen, in Poppy's relationships with her flatmate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), her pregnancy pressuring sister Suzy (Kate O'Flynn), or her quiet romance with social worker Tim (Samuel Roukin). A troubled student prone to fits of violence gets a slight rise out of Poppy, a reminder of the necessary evils of a world she tries hard to placate.

Happy-Go-Lucky isn't a cartoonish figment of female empowering clarity, but a celebration of understanding and enjoying the little bigness of everything and nothing, of love and hate, of hope and disappointment. Once again, Leigh shines a light on the plight of the blue collar, finding a smile to escape the doldrums.

0 painful displays of affection:

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