Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008)

12May11

Sally Hawkins (Poppy), Eddie Marsan (Scott). Screenplay by Mike Leigh. Directed by Mike Leigh. Rating: 15. Running time: 118 minutes.

Happy-Go-Lucky is an odd title for a film that’s quite pleasant, but also annoying and disturbing in equal measure. I never quite believed that Mike Leigh would be capable of making the feel good film this was sold to me as, and I didn’t have to wait long to be vindicated. Hawkins was destined to play a goofy airhead at some point in her career. She just has that look, and of course she pulls off her role here as primary school teacher Poppy perfectly. She’s convincingly alone on Cloud Nine from minute zero to 120, and whilst both charming and amusing in her indifference to bad fortune, it’s bloody hard work keeping control of your desire to throttle her at times when those God-awful girlie giggles just won’t stop coming. This is, surely, no accident. The comedy comes as much from laughing with her as it does from watching our own trivial anger boil up.

The darker side is provided in the form of a prejudiced, clearly-isolated driving instructor who has to balance her blasé approach with his own mental seriousness – a task that for a long time provides huge bundles of laughs whilst it remains harmless, but which in the end turns deadly serious. He had made his life manageable by rigidly and comfortably practising a craft, but then Poppy comes along and now that self-imposed order starts shaking at its legs. He can’t hack it, confirmation of which comes in the film’s final moments when he explodes at her in the manner we’ve wanted to on multiple occasions, albeit for less sinister reasons.

This isn’t the first time a Mike Leigh piece of art has had a character like this. For so long Mary in Another Year is upsetting, but not excruciating to watch. The same goes for Ecstasy, that play he recently redirected, whose main character Jean’s mental state isn’t fully exposed and appreciated in all its sadness until the final ten minutes. Scott in Happy-Go-Lucky is probably the most disturbing of the lot, not least because no resolution is almost certain from the outset when it’s the now-only-slightly-more-serious Poppy he’s yelling at. The contrast of characters and conflict of feelings is a bizarre thing to try out. Leigh can do drama and comedy within a single work. He can do it very well. But Happy-Go-Lucky isn’t quite an exemplar of his supreme talents.

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