We all know someone a little like Poppy, the effervescent center of British writer-director Mike Leigh‘s latest film, “Happy-Go-Lucky.”
The irrepressible optimist is a not uncommon type, even in these troubled times. Just about every circle of friends includes one person who can’t help but see the silver lining in every cloud. Life never gets this soul down.
The rest of us usually hate her.
It’s well-nigh impossible to hate Poppy, as played by the splendid Sally Hawkins, though. She isn’t determined merely to be happy in her own life. She spreads happiness - pretty effortlessly - wherever she goes. Resentful siblings, indifferent Londoners and even unrepentant racists don’t rain on Poppy’s parade.
That’s not to say this is a naive film, however. Mr. Leigh has always been a careful observer of the human condition, and his newest film is no exception. Rather, “Happy-Go-Lucky” is a wise, extended argument for the idea that happiness is created, not merely given.
We understand Poppy’s personality within the first few minutes. She takes a glorious bike ride through London, pausing to park and browse through a bookstore. The sullen shopkeeper is loath to return the cute young woman’s pleasantries.
When she returns to unlock her bike, she finds it’s gone. Many of us would have let out a few choice profanities. Poppy merely murmurs, “I didn’t even get to say goodbye.” She takes it in stride, deciding that it’s about time she learned to drive anyway.
The instructor sent to teach her, Scott (Eddie Marsan), couldn’t be more different from Poppy. He’s aggressive and unhappy, blaming his troubles variously on unsympathetic teachers and London’s many immigrants. He finds Poppy infuriating.
“Happy-Go-Lucky” doesn’t really have a plot; it’s more a slice-of-life film, with a series of amusing set pieces - Poppy and her fellow primary-school teachers discuss the state of childhood in modern society over pints in the pub; another teacher brings Poppy to a very funny flamenco-dancing lesson. The film does move toward some sort of conclusion, though. There’s a surprising amount of tension here - it often looks like Poppy’s faith in her fellow human beings is going to land her in some serious trouble. This is an optimistic film, but also a pretty realistic one.
“Happy-Go-Lucky” features plenty of talent, particularly Alexis Zegerman as Poppy’s roommate, but it belongs utterly to Miss Hawkins. She has immense range: She was Colin Farrell’s working-class girlfriend in Woody Allen’s “Cassandra’s Dream,” and then Jane Austen’s most mature heroine in the recent Masterpiece adaptation of “Persuasion.” Mr. Leigh has given her talents the starring vehicle they deserve.
RATING: R (language)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Mike Leigh
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
WEB SITE: happygoluckythemovie.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS