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