Happy-Go-Lucky: A Relief From Cynical Dramatic Oscar Bait
“You can’t make everyone happy.”
“There’s no harm in trying that, Zoe, is there?”
Mike Leigh’s newest is a light charming film carried on the back of Sally Hawkins, in a performance that’s easy to fall in love with. She plays Poppy, an elementary school teacher in England who lets everything roll off her back with a smile and a joke. If you think this sounds precocious, it’s not—her optimism is far from one-note, and she encounters some of the difficulties of this world in fascinating ways. The narrative never goes much farther than a character study, but it keeps you guessing and avoids the pratfalls that seem inherent in following a character that could have easily fallen into caricature and predictability.
We follow Poppy as she deals with her sisters, bullies at her school, and her gruff driving instructor. The scenes where Poppy is learning to drive are unbearably funny, and Eddie Marsan as Scott the driving instructor mirrors perfectly the core of all driving instructors, teetering between caution and insane paranoia. I understand that the role was developed with Hawkins in mind, which makes me want to know Hawkins in real life; her crooked smile, gorgeous eyes, and sunny disposition are infectious, and her work in this role will surely garner an Oscar nomination. The reason the film is so watchable is because we can’t keep our eyes off of Poppy, and we are concerned and curious how she will deal with the obstacles to her cheeriness. Watch the scene where she hears a homeless man singing, and goes to attempt to communicate with him. He ends his unintelligible sentences with “y’know?” and Poppy responds that she does—and even though there’s no way she can actually know what he said, the look in her eyes tells us that she has seen behind the words, and does know. That’s the beauty of the character: the sunny disposition isn’t a mask, and it isn’t forced, but comes from a genuine insight into everything that is good and beautiful in the world—even when those things are hard for us to find.
Another word on Eddie Marsan: I hadn’t recognized him at all, until I looked him up after the movie. I discovered that I’d seen him in a number of American films, where he’d quietly put in good performances in character actor roles. This performance is terrific, full of humor and surprise, and has put him firmly on my map—hopefully having a big role in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes film will make him more widely known here in America. There’s a turning point for this character that I will not reveal, but despite his rough-edged unsympathetic character, Marsan makes it difficult for the audience to dismiss him even as he behaves badly. As for the script and direction by Mike Leigh, I admired the quickness of the witty patter and the assured performances he gets from every one of his actors. I wish his films got more publicity and a wider release in America— I had to seek out a screener of this film, and his Topsy-Turvy, which I’ve wanted to see since it came out, didn’t come close to my hometown in Florida and only had a limited release on DVD before going out of print, despite winning two Oscars. We can get five rows of Hancock DVDs at my Best Buy, but not one copy of this? Seek out Happy-Go-Lucky if you can—in an awards season usually wrought with serious important dramas, here’s a film that dares to laugh in the face of dramatic situations. Perhaps that makes it the most important of all.