Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.


Review by Eoin O’Faolain

There’s a question every successful artist must ask themselves after a certain period: does s/he continue doing whatever s/he did to make successful in the first place, or explore new territories? To change may alienate your audience, but to remain the same may bore them. English director Mike Leigh has built up a reputation of social-realist kitchen-sink dramas. While these are a dime a dozen in the UK, Leigh displayed an understanding of the (usually) lower classes, often through his unscripted character development with talented actors such as Timothy Spall and Imelda Staunton (who got an Oscar nom for Leigh’s Vera Drake). But what are Leigh’s limits? Should he branch out (like he did in Topsy Turvy) or stick to his downbeat dramas? His latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky, asks and answers that question.

The film centers on Poppy, a relentlessly optimistic young woman. Indeed, the film starts with her bicycle being stolen, and rather than getting upset she sees it as an opportunity to learn to drive. In fact, the entire film seems to place poor Poppy in rather miserable situations, from one of her primary school pupils bullying another, to her flamenco teacher breaking down in the middle of class, to encountering a rambling tramp, and so on. The biggest trial for Poppy comes from her driving instructor, the aggressively officious Scott, who constantly berates Poppy for her attire and lack of silent concentration. Poppy, gets her revenge by constantly making small talk, breaking down Scott’s barrier of memorized facts, misanthropy, racism, and borderline religious dogmatism.

At an initial glance, the film is similar to Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days, in which a woman, first buried in sand up to her waist, and eventually her neck, babbles herself into a sense of merriness despite the misery of the world around her and the people she knows. But while Beckett is highlighting the futility of existence and taking an ironic look on life, Mike Leigh’s film does something different. Every character Poppy lives with is hung up on some issue, while Poppy isn’t. Her optimism, however ignorant, seems to give her a fulfilling life.

Actress Sally Hawkins does a spectacular job at portraying Poppy. Considering her minor roles in other film and TV projects, she seems to be a relatively normal person, but her transformation blurs the boundaries between actress and person. It’s a typical trait of Leigh’s films; he’s a director that appreciates actors more than anyone else in cinema. However, it wouldn’t be surprising for most people to get irritated by Poppy. Sometimes she’s a bit too much, like a morning person bouncing around the kitchen when you want to nurse a hangover in peace. Leigh tries to bypass this with Poppy’s streetwise wit, as well as a moving scene in which she does break down.

While Poppy remains a fascinating person, the film doesn’t deserve its two hour running length. There’s only so much you can do with her character, and eventually the pace gives way and you feel dragged along by the slice-of-life episodes. Poppy’s friends and associates all work well around her, but only one really stands out. Eddie Marson (known best as Hancock’s nemesis) delivers an excellent performance as Poppy’s driving instructor Scott. He perfectly encapsulates a type you probably know all too well, the generally well-educated lower-class guy who uses his knowledge as a weapon, and swings his semi-fascist beliefs around frantically, backed up by a chillingly strict adherence to whatever rules he has mastered. Marson is incredibly watchable as he swings between wild screams and pompous lectures.

Ultimately, the real joy of the film is in the two leads. As a story, it’s typical of Leigh’s open-ended films. But what Leigh has done has discovered a new avenue to explore as part of his forte of social-realism. Rather than dwell on the downbeat, he found a believable character in Poppy, and managed to make something both witty and optimistic.

3 / 5 stars

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