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Poppy Cross is happy-go-lucky. At 30, she lives in Camden: cheeky, playful, frank while funny, and talkative to strangers. She's a conscientious and exuberant primary-school teacher, flatmates with Zoe, her long-time friend; she's close to one sister, and not so close to another. In this slice of life story, we watch her take driving lessons from Scott, a dour and tightly-wound instructor, take classes in flamenco dance from a fiery Spaniard, encounter a tramp in the night, and sort out a student's aggressive behavior with a social worker's help. Along the way, we wonder if her open attitude puts her at risk of misunderstanding or worse. What is the root of happiness? Written by
A cheerful film with an underlying vein of tragedy
Happy-Go-Lucky has been reviewed in the British press as a relatively lightweight Mike Leigh movie, but I'm not so sure. The story revolves around Sally Hawkins' remarkable performance as primary school teacher Poppy Cross, a highly unusual character in that Hawkins and Leigh between them manage to make her consistently cheerful and optimistic without being either naive or irritating. Poppy is presented as both relentlessly cheery and, on another level, remarkably intuitive; throughout the film, she has a series of encounters with troubled male figures (a boy in her class who has started bullying, a very strange homeless Irishman and, above all, her phenomenally uptight driving instructor Scott) and in all of them, Poppy's liveliness and friendly curiosity about other people is seen to be a powerful counter to male self-pity, anger and despair.
Hawkins' character is not someone who is inclined to let life get her down, so it's just as well that she is surrounded by people with a somewhat more sardonic or downbeat take on reality. Her flatmate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman, very good) is a wonderfully dry and sarky counter to Poppy's enthusiasm, although the affection between them is palpable. Poppy's younger sisters Suzy and Helen are also quite different; Suzy is a law student who is more interested in clubbing, drinking and playing with her brother-in-law's Playstation than in criminal justice, while Helen is heavily pregnant, obsessed with acquiring the trappings of a respectable suburban life and unable to understand how her older sister can be so happy living in a rented flat and not stepping onto the property ladder.
The big surprise for me is that I had been led to believe that this is a more or less straightforward feelgood film. It isn't. Scott, Poppy's driving teacher (Eddie Marsan), is the most affecting character in it, and one of the greatest and most unforgettable characters in Leigh's oeuvre. Most of the reviews I've read of the film depict Scott as a hateful, sinister or otherwise despicable character, but although it's true that he is an uptight, judgmental, angry bigot, it is also perfectly clear from his first appearance that he doesn't know what he's talking about and that he is driven by emotional problems that he hasn't even begun to get a handle on. Marsan's extraordinary performance is one of the best things I've seen on film for a long time. Scott has been afflicted with very bad teeth and a mild speech defect (he can't really say the letter 'r') and although his inner anger and bigotry is played for laughs for a lot of the film, in the end it is allowed to blossom forth in a riveting scene where his fury, jealousy and terror of his own darkness spill forth in a heartbreaking and riveting torrent. If part of the point of art is to help us to understand people we would otherwise have little sympathy with, then this film is a work of art. I've never seen Marsan before but he deserves awards for this movie, no question.
Happy-Go-Lucky is a highly enjoyable and often very funny film, but it also carries terrible sadness. I have never been a massive fan of Mike Leigh, but lately I have to admit that I was wrong. He just seems to get better and better.
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