The following is a revised version of my earlier cinema review of Happy-Go-Lucky. Go to “The DVD” for a discussion of the disc.
London. Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a primary school teacher who shares a flat with her friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), also a teacher. Poppy is someone with an unfailingly positive attitude to life…so when someone steals her bicycle she just shrugs. These things happen. So she takes driving lessons and almost meets her match with her instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan).
Happy-Go-Lucky is certainly more upbeat than many of Mike Leigh’s films, though it’s a lot more typical of his work than at first appears. Happy, seemingly well-adjusted characters have appeared in his work before: Vera Drake was one, someone whose downfall was prompted by a wish to help out people less fortunate than herself. Poppy is a memorable character, as ever developed in improvisations between director and actor. At first she’s so relentlessly perky – and dressed in clashing primary colours throughout much of the film - that she could drive you up the wall…or out of the cinema within fifteen minutes. In her encounters with the tightly-wound, resentful Scott she certainly succeeds in rubbing him up the wrong way. But stick with it. Once in a while her mask slips and you sense that this is all a defence mechanism. Defending against what, we don’t find out. In a lesser film, we might have a scene describing some past trauma which might “explain” Poppy, but thankfully Leigh has avoided this, letting her be as complex and mysterious as anyone in life. Importantly, we do see her at work too, and her competence in dealing with a violent pupil attracts social worker Tim (Samuel Roukin) to her.
More than any Leigh film since the much darker Naked, Happy-Go-Lucky concentrates on a single character. The film doesn’t lead up to scenes of secrets being revealed (as in Secrets & Lies or Vera Drake), nor does one devastating event drive the second half (as in All or Nothing). The film’s dramatic and comic spine are the scenes of Poppy’s driving lessons with Scott, which are brilliantly played and very funny. (If you hear anyone saying “Enraha! Enraha!” in the near future, this is why.) But they lead up to a typical Leigh climax, an outpouring of pent-up emotion that hits you in the gut. A boil is lanced, a catharsis is reached, film ends.
Sally Hawkins has rightly had a lot of praise (and a Best Actress prize at Berlin and a Golden Globe but for some reason no Oscar nomination) for her performance. Having previously played supporting roles in All or Nothing and Vera Drake, she takes centre stage with considerable aplomb, though Eddie Marsan is a standout and the supporting roles are as impeccably played as you might expect. Production and costume design, as usual, are used by Leigh to comment on his characters. The film has an expansive feel, helped by Dick Pope’s Scope photography. (This is Leigh’s first film in the wider format.)
There are some weaknesses. Poppy’s two sisters Suzy (Kate O’Flynn) and Helen (Caroline Martin) seem more like stock Leigh types and a scene where Poppy tries to help a homeless man slows the film down and is unconvincing anyway. (What’s she doing wandering around what looks like an abandoned warehouse on her own late at night?) But for much of the time, Happy-Go-Lucky is both funny and poignant, with a star-making performance at its heart.
Miramax's edition of Happy-Go-Lucky is a single dual-layered disc encoded for Region 1 only. It begins with an anti-smoking commercial and trailers for Miramax's thirtieth-anniversary trailer and for Doubt.
Happy-Go-Lucky was shot in a combination of Super 35 for most of the film and hi-def video for the driving instruction scenes, though I have to confess I hadn't been able to tell the two apart. For a bright, colourful film you get a bright, colourful anamorphic DVD transfer (in the intended ratio of 2.40:1), sharp with good shadow detail. Interiors are more dully coloured, but that's down to the original film. In short, this is what you should expect from a SD DVD transfer of a brand-new film.
The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1 (at the lower bitrate of 384 kbps). This is a very dialogue-driven film, but the surrounds do occasionally open up, for Gary Yershon's music score, for passing traffic in the car scenes and particularly in a nightclub scene (shot at Koko's in Camden) early on.
The main extra is a Mike Leigh audio commentary. This isn't one of his best efforts – there are a few gaps, and places where Leigh is simply narrating the on-screen action. But there is enough material on the making of his films and his work with his cast to make this worthwhile, even if most Leigh fans will know much of this already.
The extras are completed by two featurettes. “Behind the Wheel of Happy-Go-Lucky (4:26) looks at the filming of the driving scenes. There is some input from Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan (who began the film thinking he was making a serious Taxi Driver-ish study of a troubled man) about their work, but more about how these scenes were achieved. Instead of the usual method of putting a car on a low-loader (which Leigh had done before, especially on All or Nothing), Leigh and DP Dick Pope installed three small video cameras and a sound-recording system into a real car, which is genuinely being driven by Hawkins and Marsan in the scenes. “Happy-in-Character” (27:14) is a general making-of piece: the usual mixture of on-set footage and interviews with Leigh, Hawkins, Marsan and Alexis Zegerman
Also on the disc are some Sneak Peeks: trailers for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Desperate Housewives: The Complete Fourth Season, Samantha Who?: The Complete First Season, plus the Miramax and Doubt trailers mentioned earlier.