CAPSULE: The title describes Poppy, a London grade school teacher whose irrepressibly positive attitude is stronger than cast iron. That is it. There is very little plot to HAPPY-GO-LUCKY. We just watch Poppy live her life and watch her keeping her sunny side up against high odds. With lesser acting or direction Poppy could have ended up seeming like a candidate for Sesame Street or perhaps professional care. But Poppy has more depth than that, and she easily gets the viewer on her side. Director Mike Leigh counterbalances his last film, VERA DRAKE, with one that is lighter and more pleasant. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
There is not a lot happening in Mike Leigh's HAPPY-GO-LUCKY. Or perhaps there is more than meets the eye. We follow around Poppy (played by Sally Hawkins), who has an absolutely unalterably positive attitude and a perpetual smile on her face. We keep waiting for something really nasty to happen to Poppy to wipe that smile off her face. After all, this is a film by Mike Leigh, who made the tragic VERA DRAKE. Poppy bounces off of three different difficult people. First there is the class bully in the third or fourth grade class that Poppy teaches. Second there is Poppy's flamenco teacher (played by Karina Fernandez) for whom the soul of the flamenco dance is rage and selfishness. The first step of flamenco is to stamp your feet while thinking, "MY SPACE! (Stamp. Stamp.) MY SPACE!"
Darkest of all the dark people in Poppy's life is Steve (played by comedian Eddie Marsan), Poppy's new driving instructor. At age thirty Poppy is learning to drive. Steve is rage in human form as he browbeats his students and shouts commands. He has named the three rear-view mirrors after fallen angels and shouts the names of the angels when he wants Poppy to check the mirrors. Poppy takes all this in her superhuman stride. The film is not so much a story as a study of Poppy as she goes through her life and interacts with difficult people, rarely losing her smile or her radiance. On the other hand Poppy's life includes her flat-mate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), a bright spot in Poppy's relationships. When they get together each seems to be like catnip for the other. These may be some of the only sequences that go awry under Leigh's direction. Poppy and Zoe find each other a lot funnier than we find either of them. They seem to go into drugged-line paroxysms of laughter.
Mike Leigh seems to have had a great time writing about this woman who uses her sunny attitude as armor against life and more surprisingly finds that it works for her. Sally Hawkins could be a lot like the British equivalent of Anne Hathaway. It takes a certain amount of charm to keep a character like Poppy from grating on the audience and Hawkins has a light enough touch. Steve Marsan is nothing but grating, but that is the idea. In his own way he is as good at what he does as Hawkins is at doing the opposite.
Underneath it all is the question of just how much ones attitude shapes ones circumstances. More than once Poppy takes risks that the rest of us would not. In a more noir film Poppy's behavior might seem to be foolish. But on balance she seems to come through okay. I rate HAPPY-GO-LUCKY a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. The accents make some of the dialog difficult to follow for some of us Yanks.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1045670/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper