Oct 6, 2008

NYFF Review: On Happy Go Lucky

By Lena Dunham

Poppy is thirty. She is a schoolteacher and she enjoys her job. She lives with her best friend in a small flat above a pub. She’s not dating anyone at the moment, but she doesn’t mind. It gives her time to pursue hobbies like Flamenco and trampolining. She’s also being taught how to drive by a verbally abusive troll of a man who regularly tells her she’s an idiot. However, she takes his insults in stride, focusing on the task at hand. She isn’t one to hold grudges. Poppy is the protagonist of Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky, a film that attempts to challenge the great unspoken rule of drama: Happy people are boring.

Leigh has described Happy Go Lucky, his first film since 2004’s acclaimed abortion drama Vera Drake, as an “anti-miserablist film.” Indeed, his main character is stubbornly, unremittingly cheerful, facing each of life’s challenges with humor and good will. The effect is immediately disarming, forcing the viewer to wonder whether Poppy’s veneer will be cracked to reveal a manic creature along the lines of Election’s Tracy Flick, or worse. But Leigh never punishes Poppy for her hopefulness, nor does he give his audience cause to believe there are rough currents beneath the placid surface. Indeed, the director has created a film with a truly untroubled leading lady. The necessary tension that propels the film comes from watching the jaded, humbled characters that usually populate Leigh’s world as they try to make sense of Poppy. Is she mocking them? What in the world does she have to feel so good about? The answer: Nothing. She lives a decidedly average life. But in Poppy’s book that makes her “a very lucky girl.” When closely considered this statement becomes political, an indictment of the greed and undeserved ennui of the average citizen. But Leigh is far too skilled a craftsman to allow his message to read as pedantic.

Happy Go Lucky is a true character study. Thought provoking statements about gender, class, love and education are all present, but at its core the film is a portrait of Poppy (as played by the stunningly committed Sally Hawkins, incapable of a false note). It is a series of loose vignettes (shot by Dick Pope, Leigh’s subtly brilliant DP) that follow her as she engages with her students, spends time with her friends, and is taught to drive by the aforementioned angry little man, Scott (played by Eddie Marsan, who has the same laughing-at-you presence that made Ricky Gervais a household name.) Leigh’s strength has always been his ability to give birth to fully formed characters with all the ticks and quirks of your closest friends. He arrives at these enviable results through a months-long workshopping process with his cast, during which time the script is built from the ground up. This often delivers a product that is lean on plot but chockfull of spirit as characters collide, drift, and connect again. And, although Poppy will certainly join the pantheon of great Leigh characters, the film occasionally suffers for this loose approach, forcing this reviewer to wonder whether the film might have benefited from having half an hour shaved off of it. Although, to give Leigh credit for innovation, this criticism may be the result of subverted expectations. We, as viewers, are used to meditations on misery with two hour running times. Taking that same cinematic journey with someone who is content? Now that’s new.