(No longer in theaters)
Oct 10, 2008
Beneath the everyday, scattershot surface of Mike Leigh’s newest marvel, Happy-Go-Lucky, is a classic theme: the survival of enchantment in a hostile world. (Examples range from the aptly named Disney musical Enchantment to the Bozo-Goes-to-Buchenwald saga Life is Beautiful.) Leigh is a lefty social realist with a fondness for satire and larky heroines, and here he has a dream of a protagonist: Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a London schoolteacher who skips blithely through an indifferent universe (full of kindness and malevolence in roughly equal measure), refusing to be hobbled by setbacks. Although there’s much bustle in the margins, the spine of the film is a series of driving lessons with an instructor named Scott (Eddie Marsan), a cauldron of bile who’s driven, so to speak, to the edge of madness by his simultaneous attraction to this woman and antipathy toward her worldview. The question hangs: Will the ugliness finally pop Poppy’s bubble?
The deeper question is whether Poppy is fatuously oblivious—in denial. She does register misfortune, if oh so briefly. Absent, however, is blame, of others and herself. In a bookstore, she attempts to engage the young man at the register (“An oasis of calm in here!”), tries again when he fails to respond, and finally gives up with a sigh. She might have concluded he’s a jerk. She might have concluded she’s not sufficiently attractive. (She is slim and cute, with a mouthful of big English teeth, but no beauty—and her garrulousness could be an irritant.) Instead, she shrugs the encounter off, as if to say, Oh, well. Someone’s having a bad day. When she emerges from the store to find her bike has been stolen, she has a moment of sadness (she didn’t get to say good-bye to it), then decides it’s time to learn to drive.
You can imagine Leigh—famous for building his screenplays through actors’ tightly focused improvisations—laughing at the prospect of Hawkins’s Poppy and Marsan’s Scott confined to the front seat of a car. Marsan has a head too big for his smallish body and the face of a soulful gargoyle. He could probably play lovable, like the late Bruno Kirby, but his face hardens where Kirby’s went doughboy-soft. The interaction between the bullying control freak and the giggly chatterbox who responds to his barking orders with tongue-in-cheek exclamations of obedience is at first hilarious; then hilarious with dissonant notes; then, later, unnerving bordering on terrifying. Scott’s sudden vulnerability doesn’t lead to his loosening up, as in screwball comedies. The very notion of freedom—personal, cultural, political—threatens his self-esteem.
Leigh has been giving actors their tongues for decades, and of all his films, Happy-Go-Lucky is the easiest, the least labored. As Poppy is tested (not just by Scott but by other intrusions of cruelty), we begin to see that this is not a life of whimsy but a design for living that’s deep and hard-won. Hawkins is so effervescent that after the film ended, I worried about her—it must have been sad to have to leave Poppy behind. I’d like to think Poppy will never go away, that we all can cultivate our inner Poppys.