In a sense, Happy-Go-Lucky is a tale of three very different but inter-related teachers and their pupils. There’s a passionate Spanish flamenco dance teacher (Karina Fernandez), there’s Scott (Eddie Marsan), a depressive driving instructor, but mostly it’s about Poppy (Sally Hawkins), an impossibly exuberant primary school teacher.
Poppy is 30, single and sharing a flat with her long-time friend, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), also a teacher. Nothing seems to get Poppy down, and she always sees the bright side of things. When she takes up driving, she gets Scott, her polar opposite and the instructor from hell. He always finds something to complain about: an earlier student, traffic cameras, multiculturalism, anything. He does have one thing in common with Poppy – he declares that he’s never given up on a student, and she doesn’t want to give up on him.
While Poppy could be dismissed as loony, and Scott could never survive as an instructor, Leigh has imbued his characters with so much grounded reality that we can believe in them. The dialogue is superb, with long takes that highlight the actors’ impressive performances. It’s easy to single out Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan, however the support actors are all excellent as well. We get a good sense of each character even if we see little of them, like the flamenco teacher, a chiropractor, a homeless man and Poppy’s friends and family.
Happy-Go-Lucky is quite an accomplishment by Leigh. Normally a master of bleakness, he has crafted a colourful story that will appeal to mainstream audiences who wouldn’t get within a stone’s throw of many of his films, yet should satisfy his loyal fans.
And colourful it certainly is. The visuals are a feast for the eyes, akin to the films of Almodóvar. Poppy’s clothing, décor, workplace and hangouts are all full of bright hues. The music is light and at times carnivalesque. Poppy is drawn to the light, so to speak. She trampolines weekly, takes up flamenco (the teacher is used to great comic effect) and socialises with her friends.
The comedy works well because it has a basis in reality. Even the bleak characters are funny. But unlike
The film doesn’t shy away from social issues we’ve come to expect from the director, like racism, mental illness, childhood development and more. Yet Leigh doesn’t preach and these themes are always in the background. As he says in a Q&A about the film:
“The one thing I shouldn’t do (and you wouldn’t want me to do) is patronise the audience and to start over-explaining things that can quite happily sit implicitly and have their sense of being real and meaningful without explanations.”
This is one of the many strengths of the film. It allows a viewer to take it on whatever level one chooses. Leigh doesn’t try to answer any social questions, but doesn’t shy from them either. After I first saw the film (I’ve seen it twice), I asked the projectionist what he thought of the film. He couldn’t understand what the message of the film was about. Ultimately, the film is about this one character, Poppy, and her uplifting and perhaps (for some) annoyingly happy personality. I found it both a very enjoyable comedy and also rich in drama.
Happy-Go-Lucky opens today.
Interview with Mike Leigh and Sally Hawkins
Sally Hawkins interview