Mike Leighs Happy-Go-Lucky is the story of a good woman. As simple as that. We first see Poppy peddling her bike through London and smiling all the time to herself. She stops at a bookshop and tries to cheer up the dour proprietor. No, that isnt right. She doesnt want to change him, just infect him with her irrepressible good nature. She may not even be aware of how she operates. Then her bike is stolen. She takes that right in stride.
Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is one of the most difficult roles any actress could be assigned. She must smile and be peppy and optimistic at (almost) all times, and do it naturally and convincingly, as if the sunshine comes from inside. Thats harder than playing Lady Macbeth. Shes been in movies before, including Leighs Vera Drake and Woody Allens Cassandras Dream, but this is her star-making role. She was named best actress at Berlin 2008. I will deliberately employ a cliche: She is a joy to behold.
At first, that seems to be all there is to it. The movie will be about Poppy and her job as an elementary school teacher, and the lessons she is taking in flamenco dancing, and her flatmate Zoe, and her sister Suzy, and how she starts to feel about Tim, the school counselor who comes to assist her with a troubled little boy. That would almost be enough. But Happy-Go-Lucky is about a great deal more and goes very much deeper.
As she works with the little boy, we see that shes not at all superficial, but can listen, observe, empathize and find the right note in response. In another scene, which may not seem to fit but is profoundly effective, she comes across a homeless man in the shadows under a rail line, and talks with him. Hes one of those people who chants the same thing, ferociously, over and over. She listens to him, speaks with him, asks if hes hungry. She is not afraid. Shes worried about him. I think hes aware of that, and it soothes him. It is possible nobody has spoken to him in days or weeks.
So we get these glimpses into Poppys deeper regions. Then she decides to take driving lessons and meets Scott, the instructor. He is played brilliantly by Eddie Marsan, an English comedian who as an actor often finds morose, worrywart roles. Consider him as the pessimistic Jewish father in Sixty Six. Scott is an angry man. Oddly for a driving instructor, he seems to channel road rage. His system for helping her remember the rear-view mirror and the two side mirrors involves naming them after fallen angels. He screams at her. No one could drive with Scott at their side.
Any other person would quit working with Scott after one lesson. Not Poppy. Does she think she can help him? Their relationship descends into an extraordinary scene during which we suddenly see right inside both of them, and understand better what Poppys cheerfulness is all about. We also see Scotts terrifying insecurity and self-loathing; Marsan is spellbinding.
This is Mike Leighs funniest film since Life Is Sweet (1991). Of course, he hasnt ever made a COMPLETELY funny film, and Happy-Go-Lucky has scenes that are not funny, not at all. There are always undercurrents and oddness. His films feel as if theyre spontaneously unfolding; he has a vision of his characters that is only gradually revealed.
I had seen Sally Hawkins in movies before. She was the rich girl who went to the private clinic in Vera Drake. No role could be more different than Poppy. Leigh, who spent years working for the stage, was able to imagine her as Poppy, a role very few women could play. Maybe Meryl Streep could sustain that level of merriness, but then, what cant she do? And now I must ask, what cant Hawkins do? There are countless ways she might have stepped wrong. But she breezes in on her bicycle and engages our deepest sympathy. Poppy has a gift, as I said, for not running, but standing there, reading the situation, understanding other people and acting helpfully. And by that I do not mean she cheers them up.