Tall Poppy is a cut above
MIKE Leigh’s new film, HappyGo- Lucky, which opened this year’s Sydney Film Festival, left audiences more or less divided about its star, Sally Hawkins. There were those who hated her and those who wanted to wring her neck. A minority, including this reviewer, found her portrayal of an irrepressible optimist one of the most touching and captivating performances of the year.
Those who saw Hawkins a few nights later on television in the new film Persuasion have vouched for her versatility and intelligence. No characters could be less alike than Jane Austen’s disappointed heroine and the indefatigably vivacious Poppy, though both in the end find some prospect of happiness to come.
Happy- Go- Lucky has been described as Leigh’s first comedy. But surely that’s an overstatement. It’s true that most of Leigh’s films are bleak studies of life’s outcasts and victims, and this latest one is in vivid contrast with his last, Vera Drake , that desolating tale of a kindly female abortionist.
But even his darker films have had memorable comic passages ( who could forget the hilarious oyster- eating lunch in TopsyTurvy ?). Leigh’s mixture of compassion, humour and clear- eyed observation makes his films hard to categorise. No British director has a keener eye for the mundane realities of the world and their neglected possibilities for suffering or fulfilment.
But I can understand why people are put off by Poppy. She seems too good- natured to be true and her mannerisms can be profoundly irritating. Poppy teaches at a primary school in a north London suburb, lives with a much- loved flatmate, Zoe ( Alexis Zegerman), and likes nothing better than a binge- drinking night with raucous female friends. Poppy gets about on a bicycle and is more puzzled than angry when it is stolen.
Her philosophy is summed up in the phrase: ‘‘ Don’t worry, it may never happen.’’ There is a smile for every occasion and she can be indignant when her sunny attitudes are not returned. We learn much about her in an early scene when she tries to engage a suspicious and taciturn bookshop owner in idle conversation. ( Poppy has never grasped the fact that cordiality between strangers is compatible with silence.)
The film is a string of incidents rather than a story and Leigh has been criticised for delivering another of his supposedly plotless narratives. I like a good plot, but Leigh’s films are essentially studies of character and the viewer’s interest lies in watching the characters develop.
Usually this means the films depend crucially on a charismatic central performance: Timothy Spall’s overworked taxi driver in All or Nothing , Brenda Blethyn’s despairing mother in Secrets & Lies . I can’t imagine Happy- Go- Lucky without Hawkins’s unforgettable portrait of Poppy, any more than I could have imagined Breakfast at Tiffany’s without Audrey Hepburn. And in Poppy we see a reflection of other great Leigh characters. Vera Drake was another version of the irrepressibly cheery soul, and both can be taken as the moral opposites of David Thewlis’s hate- filled loner in Naked .
Her bicycle stolen, Poppy decides to learn to drive and takes lessons from Scott ( Eddie Marsan), a po- faced instructor who disapproves of irrelevant chat at the wheel and the highheeled boots Poppy wears while driving.
Scott is at first bemused, then exasperated by her attempts at jocularity and resists all efforts to break down his reserve.
Poppy, meanwhile, enrols
for evening fla- menco lessons with her colleague Heather ( Sylvestra Le Touzel), and there are delicious encounters with a Spanish dance teacher who has little time for levity or tardiness.
But is there anything more to this girl? Is she capable of serious thought or deeper feelings? Her practical sister ( Kate O’Flynn) exhorts her to get aboard the property ladder and to take some responsibility for her life. At this point the film takes a darker turn.
At school, Poppy intervenes to counsel a bullied boy, and on her way home one night encounters a homeless derelict and stops to hear his story. They converse in a mysterious gibberish that may or may not have meaning for anyone else. Later, when Poppy discovers her driving instructor is stalking her and breaks off her lessons, she is shocked when he delivers a tirade of abuse. Bottled- up Scott is another of Leigh’s angry victims, perhaps a dangerous one, and, like Poppy, we come to pity him.
In all his films, Leigh offers insights into the sorrows and disappointments of ordinary lives, and in myriad small tragedies we may glimpse a wider social malaise. It may be that the unhappiest people in Happy- Go- Lucky — the bullied boy, the paranoid Scott and the broken old tramp — are aspects of a single life at different stages. Leigh offers no easy solutions, except to remind us that for those of good heart and a generous nature there is always the possibility of hope.
The joyous serenity of the film’s final moments is beautifully achieved. Leigh’s film may not be the definitive study of the contemporary British single woman that some were apparently expecting; it has nothing much to say about feminism, multiculturalism or social justice ( though all these things are touched on).
But the more I think about Happy- Go- Lucky the less it seems like an aberration, a comic diversion. With her gawky smiles, her maladroit conversational gambits and her cheerful insouciance, Poppy undoubtedly makes us laugh. But Leigh makes us think. It’s an exhilarating film, one of the best he has given us.
Thoughtful laughs: Eddie Marsan and Sally Hawkins in Happy- Go- Lucky