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 who were less fortunate. 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) 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. A scene at a flamenco dancing class is another comic highlight. 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) and brother-in-law Jamie (Oliver Maltman) 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.