The sunny side of life

Mike Leigh’s latest is an un­usu­ally friv­o­lous knock­about com­edy, writes Don­ald Clarke HAPPY-GO-LUCKY Di­rected by Mike Leigh. Star­ring Sally Hawkins, Alexis Zegerman, An­drea Rise­bor­ough, Sinead Matthews, Kate O’Flynn, Stan­ley Townsend, Ed­die Marsan

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews Film -

15A cert, Cineworld/IFI, Dublin, 118 min FOUR years af­ter the tri­umphant re­lease of Vera Drake, a film mar­i­nated in mis­ery and luke­warm tea, Mike Leigh has re­turned with a very dif­fer­ent piece of work.

Vera Drake used an un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally clean nar­ra­tive arc to muse upon the hor­rors of back­street abor­tions in 1950s Bri­tain. Happy-GoLucky is al­to­gether more ram­shackle, more op­ti­mistic and more hu­mor­ous. Yet the new piece is so com­pre­hen­sively rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the great man’s meth­ods and en­thu­si­asms, it al­most looks a lit­tle like a pas­tiche. If Happy-Go-Lucky were sig­nif­i­cantly less amus­ing you could imag­ine it as a prod­uct of the par­ody mer­chants that brought us Date Movie and Epic Movie. Ladies and gen­tle­men, Mike Leigh presents Mike Leigh Movie.

Sally Hawkins, win­ner of the best ac­tress prize at the Ber­lin Film Fes­ti­val, ap­pears as a pri­mary school­teacher from south Lon­don. Poppy could be seen as the per­fect com­ple­ment to Johnny, the char­ac­ter played by David Thewlis in Leigh’s Naked. Whereas Johnny was mis­an­thropic, lethar­gic, male and north­ern, she is op­ti­mistic, en­er­getic, fe­male and south­ern.

In the course of the pic­ture, which is not bur­dened with any­thing re­sem­bling a plot, Poppy takes a class in Fla­menco danc­ing, vis­its a chi­ro­prac­tor, aids a tramp, dates a col­league and, most amus­ingly, takes driv­ing lessons from a rightwing lu­natic played by Ed­die Marsan. Through­out all her trau­mas, Poppy never al­lows her pos­i­tive out­look to wa­ver. “Aww bless him/her/it!” she says of vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing that passes her way.

Poppy is, in short, a very familiar fig­ure from Leigh Land. Over the last four decades, Alison Stead­man, Brenda Blethyn, Les­ley Manville and Imelda Staunton have all played brave women who re­tain their dig­nity while tides of cyn­i­cism and im­moral­ity wash about their feet. But Poppy takes her buoy­ancy to near psy­chotic lev­els. De­spite the sin­cer­ity of Hawkins’s per­for­mance, it re­mains dif­fi­cult to re­sist the temp­ta­tion to scream each time she cack­les at calamity or cheer­fully ti­dies away the ev­i­dence of some­body else’s psy­cho­log­i­cal melt­down.

As Happy-Go-Lucky pro­gresses, how­ever, it be­comes clear that Poppy is not just some bum­bling Pollyanna. Her op­ti­mism springs from a prag­matic be­lief that there are rea­sons why peo­ple be­have badly and, if those rea­sons are ad­dressed, then pos­i­tive change can be ef­fected.

While pass­ing a dis­used scrap of ground, she en­coun­ters a tramp (the mighty Stan­ley Townsend) and makes a de­cent at­tempt to un­der­stand his sur­real ram­bling. When she ob­serves bul­ly­ing at school, her first in­stinct is to in­ves­ti­gate the home life of the guilty party. By the film’s close, Leigh and Hawkins have just about con­vinced us that Poppy is some­body who de­serves to be hugged more than she de­serves to be stran­gled.

Still, there is no es­cap­ing the con­clu­sion that Leigh’s latest of­fers us lit­tle we haven’t seen from the great man be­fore. Some crit­ics, con­sid­er­ing the way his scripts are de­vel­oped through im­pro­vi­sa­tion, have dared to sug­gest that the ac­tors should re­ceive writ­ing cred­its, but the fre­quent re­cur­rence of cer­tain sit­u­a­tions and stereo­types con­firms that just one mind is in con­trol.

The scene dur­ing which we are asked to sneer at a drab sub­ur­ban wo­man in her drab sub­ur­ban home – here, it is Poppy’s sis­ter – has ap­peared in half a dozen Leigh films and it has al­ways be­trayed a cer­tain bo­hemian snooti­ness on the di­rec­tor’s part.

Thank good­ness for the de­lib­er­ately un­easy comic joust­ing be­tween Poppy and Marsen’s anal mis­an­thrope. As the driv­ing in­struc­tor slowly re­veals the true depths of his men­tal in­sta­bil­ity, the film takes one of its sev­eral swerves into darker ter­ri­tory, and we are re­minded that, even while coast­ing, Leigh re­mains the most idio­syn­cratic and wil­ful of con­tem­po­rary direc­tors. Happy-Go-Lucky is no clas­sic, but no se­ri­ous cin­ema­goer will want to miss it.

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The power of pos­i­tive think­ing: Sally Hawkins in Hap­pyGo-Lucky

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