Tall Poppy is a cut above

Evan Wil­liams

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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