Directed by: Mike Leigh
Written by: Mike Leigh
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, and Karina Fernandez
Impossible would be one way to describe Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the flamboyantly optimistic center of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. With that one word, you can take her as impossibly happy, annoying, or over the top. She is all of these things and more, as you and she both learn during the course of this off-beat life lesson comedy.
Hawkins and Leigh both approach this complicated woman with true zest and unapologetic heart. This performance is a work of art inspired by a terrific actress and this director’s unique method. Leigh casts his movies with only story in mind, and then works with his actors to craft improvised moments and write out the actual screenplay.
Here we follow Poppy as she tries, sometimes desperately, to cling on to her absurdly optimistic attitude toward life. It’s a movie where she is constantly in a classroom, learning from others who would have her feel the pain, or teaching joy to others in her job as a primary school.
Anchoring this deceptively organized film are a series of driving lessons from a man who is Poppy’s complete foil, Scott (Eddie Marsan.) Racist, pudgy, and short-fused, he constantly attacks, berates, and puts down Poppy and her way of thinking. She cleverly shrugs it off, refusing to break her smile, until she does.
Marsan is another actor who is brilliant in this movie. He shows us Scott’s seething rage, how it channels at those around him or the broken system that produced him. He claims he is awake to the pain of the world, and you truly believe and feel it. The clever banter between him and Hawkins provides a bulk of the movie’s many laughs, but it is also quite deep. It’s philosophical battle for the driver’s seat, and Poppy wants optimism to get its license.
The camera mostly keeps its distance in Happy-Go-Lucky, but Leigh makes his close-ups count. You can tell this is a woman barely holding on to any normal form of reality. We see this in a crucial scene that may seem unimportant. In it, Poppy wanders the dark, surrealistically lit London streets following a homeless man. “Ya know what I mean?” the obviously mentally ill man repeatedly asks her. Her earnest, heartfelt reply is “Yeah, I do.”
The audience is terrified in this moment, because the movies tell us to expect a mugging. Poppy is nervous, but part of her cannot leave this man. She must stay, until she defeatedly realizes that there is nothing she can offer him. She shares herself with the world, for better or worse.
There is very little that doesn’t succeed in this movie. It’s a creative risk that the often-somber Leigh takes, but his comedic style and dark humor still find ways to seep in among the endless rays of sunshine. He lets the family problems rip in an encounter with Poppy’s sisters, and a flamenco instructor with male problems tries to get her to express her troubles through dance. Poppy keeps a smile on her face through it all, even when back pain sets in and she finds it hard to walk.
The off-beat characters she comes in contact with all attempt in a way to teach her something. She does learn, but by the end she seems to have gone back to her delusional abyss up in space, where the sun always shines. She isn’t afraid of the sunburn, loneliness, or any of the other things that keep people down here in the real world.