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
If ever a film was wonderfully summarised in a title, it is Happy-Go-Lucky. Those five syllables perfect describe the light and breezy tone of this film, and quite possibly how you will feel as you leave the cinema. This is a movie that admirably celebrates optimism, which I for one found a nice relief in an age where even Hollywood blockbusters strive to be dark and cynical.
At first, I didn't really think I was going to enjoy Happy-Go-Lucky. The opening few minutes have a couple of attempts at humour that fall rather flat: not really a positive sign in a comedy-drama. And then there is a sequence illustrating a stereotypical, painful night out: the drunken ramblings of a coven of irritating witches prove to be an instant turn-off that creates little sympathy towards Poppy, our chirpy protagonist.
But luckily Happy-Go-Lucky is a slow burner: it just takes a little while to adjust to Poppy's world. It is Poppy (or Pauline) herself that will likely begin to conjure up some goodwill. Her cheery, often illogical optimism is a difficult trait to pull off, but Sally Hawkins gives a truly exceptional performance. Poppy is an oddity in London: a woman who has decided to be endlessly upbeat in a city of dreariness and unfriendliness. Her primary coloured clothes are in sharp contrast to the grey, apathetic streets and people around her, while her constant attempts at light humour and banter are often dismissed by those she tries to cheer up. Admittedly, she does often come across as annoying and excessive, but this simply strengthens her character: she is a solid mix of likable quirks and annoying habits. Her good-will even in the most difficult of situations (one sequence where she attempts to talk to a homeless drunkard sticks out) becomes endearing, and you may well find yourself cheering her on sooner than expected. She is a multi-layered character: her motivations admirable, her outlook likable. Most importantly she is a very strong, independent person who is entirely happy with her life, and the character is more than capable of holding the film together. Hawkins' portrayal works brilliantly, and her performance is one of the most charming and memorable in quite some time.
Poppy holds the story together, and it is a great relief that her character is so compelling, as the narrative relies on her completely. Indeed, the 'story' is almost non-existent, and is simply a few chapters in the day to day life of our protagonist. The film simply comprises of a number of vignettes in Poppy's life. It documents her day-to-day encounters: dealing with a troubled boy in the class she teaches, her bizarre dancing lessons, her sojourns with an intense driving instructor. More than anything, these mini-tales try and portray the way in which Poppy tries to retain her optimism in the face of an often bleak reality. Perhaps the central story is the one focusing on her driving lessons with a racist, emotionally fragile instructor. These Saturday excursions are the best examples of the film's thematic concerns: the difficulty of remaining optimistic in a pessimistic world. While Poppy's refusal to drop her friendly mannerisms often put her at risk, ultimately her cheery attitude keeps her safe and wins over the many other characters she encounters. Director Mike Leigh seemingly urges the audience to try and be friendly in an increasingly unfriendly world through his sympathetic portrayal of Polly, which seems to me to be an entirely refreshing moral! There are dark hints throughout the film: there are subtle references to child abuse, alcoholism, obsession and other bleak issues. But these are an integral part of the film that reinforce the general happy mood. The cinematography reinforces this often quite subtle, it makes terrific use of colour to give Poppy a central presence. Her multi-coloured clothing and her flatmate's yellow car make her stand out instantly. It is also quite a funny little movie when it wants to be: the humour is quirky and offbeat, but Leigh will likely succeed in making you laugh through his bizarre characters and situations. Driving instructor Scott's repeated refrain of Enraha is a great running joke, while the sometimes ridiculous mannerisms of Poppy are often good for a chuckle.
There are one or two issues that should be raised. Some of the sequences seem a little redundant: in particular a final-act romance that seems somewhat surplus to requirements (although it is thankfully brief). The ancillary characters sometimes seem to lack depth: Poppy's younger sister in particular. And the previously mentioned weak start is an obstacle that has to be overcome to reveal the real depth and subtlety the film has to offer.
Happy-Go-Lucky is a sprightly little film that is a truly uplifting experience. True a fantastically realised lead character, it has a lot to say about the increasing depersonalisation of contemporary society. The messages are subtle and careful, despite the excessiveness of Poppy. The film is far deeper than appearances may suggest, and while it is a very enjoyable two hours, it also lends itself to more detail examination. Catch this in the right mood and Happy-Go-Lucky's big heart (symbolised by Poppy's necklace) may just win you over.
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