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April 23, 2008

I’ve always been a big fan of Mike Leigh; ever since Keith nasally intoned to Candice-Marie that they should ‘ask Ray’, I’ve thought that the man really knew what he was doing in pointing the camera at the slightly mad and slightly sad.

As the years have gone by, of course, he’s gazed longer and harder at the madder and sadder, culminating in the devastatingly effective and completely wonderful Life Is Sweet and, within that film, what I have always considered to be the ultimate cinematic showdown, between Jane Horrocks as the bulimic Nicola and her Mom, Wendy, played by Alison Steadman; an almost too emotional to watch explosion of tough love. It makes me weep just to think of it. Since then, we’ve had the heartbreaking Secrets & Lies and the unutterably grim Vera Drake, plus too many others not to have to own up and consider that the man is a genuine maestro, a real Brit superstar of the big screen. Leigh’s CV might be interpreted as that of a miserabilist, but with Happy-Go-Lucky he gives his gloom merchant critics a cheery wave and invites them to the knees-up that is life with Poppy.

Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a thirty something primary school teacher tootling her way around Camden market, giving everyone the time of day and just being essentially, a right little smile fest. When she has her bike nicked (“we never even got to say goodbye!”) she determines to begin driving lessons, and in doing so runs right up against Scott, a man with a diametrically opposed world view to her. Scott has, to quote Leigh, a “lot of rubbish floating around inside his head”. A misanthropic meritocrat with more than a hint of racism and social prejudice (he locks the car doors when he sees black pedestrians) he’s a little ball of fury that reminds you in many ways of Naked‘s Johnny – there is the same obsession with Revelations and the grinding inhumanity of The System – but where Johnny was genuinely funny and had a filthy scally charm, Scott is just a sad fucking weirdo aching to be sectioned.

Poppy’s effervescently cheerful outlook is severely challenged, then, and it doesn’t take long for them to come to blows.

Outside of this, Poppy’s life looks relatively normal; she’s a good friend to her long-time flatmate Zoe, a loyal sister to hopeless Dawn, and a valued member of staff at her local school. She tries to do the odd evening class, including two hilarious flamenco sessions, have a good time, and just get by. She accepts her lot, but tries to lift others. “You can’t make everybody happy,” says Zoe, “there’s no harm in trying, though,” replies Poppy.

Scott the instructor, a tightly-wound performance by the great Eddie Marsan, sees it differently (of course), not only is he appalled to think that Poppy is a teacher, but he is seriously critical of her easy-come-easy-go lifestyle. When Poppy infuriates him with vague intimations that she loves Zoe and then refuses to expand on it, his mind creates a spiral of frustration and disapproval that threatens to pop the bulging veins in his temple.

It is this dynamic that drives the main part of the film, but there’s also a tentative new boyfriend angle to fit in, and also the possibility of a bullied child to test Poppy’s cheery outlook. At first, it seems that the bullying will trip her up, and Leigh allows us a few minutes to mull over the possibility that perhaps all there really is to this girl is a big smile and…that’s it. Or, maybe, there is a sinister, yet to be mined seam of darkness which will be uncovered as she’s tested more and more. But actually, no.

Poppy is genuinely happy-go-lucky, it’s her philosophy, and also her strength, and when she approaches the problem with her pupil head-on you realise that the glint in the eye is a twinkle with a bit of steel mixed in.

Unfortunately, ironically, this powerful sense of helpfulness that drives her character produces the one duff note in the whole movie, a scene that sticks out like a pimple on Poppy’s shiny face, right in the very middle of the story. With a bewildering sense of the inappropriate, Leigh suddenly – and it really is connected to nothing that goes before or after it – drops Poppy into a situation that no-one in their right mind would countenance, where she finds herself in a bleak, dark, run-down area, for some reason trying to befriend a mentally distressed drunken tramp. It’s five minutes of hand-wringing, frankly, and any editor worth his salt would surely have faced up to his director and insisted he let it go. Hawkins is faultless in the scene, but we work out that Poppy has backbone, that she’s not just a bit of fluff, and it almost ruins what is in essence a brilliant film. At the end, we see Poppy stand up for herself and face down the spike of much more realistic threat, and that’s all we needed.

Happy-Go-Lucky is a terrific movie by a terrific director, that will blind-side a lot of his critics (although they’ll sit up with glee at that dozy central scene), but it’s not Leigh’s film, it belongs completely to Sally Hawkins. I’ve been head over heels for her for years now, and to have her there in every scene, in every frame almost, is a true delight. It may be that you’ll find her irritating for the first half an hour (she’s not to everyone’s taste) but she will win you over with what is easily the most charming performance of the year.

Four days later, and I’m still smiling, and you can’t say fairer than that. Poppy, you can’t make everyone happy, but you managed it with me.

for the film, for Hawkins

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