Director: Mike Leigh
2008 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Before the sold-out screening of Happy-Go-Lucky, CIFF founder Michael Kutza introduced director Mike Leigh by letting us know that Leigh’s very first film, Bleak Moments, won the Gold Hugo Award for best feature film at the 1972 CIFF. Now, 25 years later, we were about to view his 18th film, with a title diametrically opposite to his first film. In between, Leigh has turned in some pretty dark stories of the human condition. Had Mike Leigh finally gotten his fill of pain? Was Happy-Go-Lucky to be his breakthrough from beneath the heavy mists of English pessimism?
Not quite, but with Happy-Go-Lucky, Leigh seems to signal that he’s willing to accept it all—good, bad, indifferent—and help the naysayers adjust to some new realities of British life, like multiculturalism, the firm grip of feminism that allows people like his main character Poppy (Sally Hawkins) to remain happily single, and death to the Angry Young Man (maybe). In point of fact, however, Leigh has been aiming for a new humanism for a very long time. In Poppy, he creates his and Hawkins’ version of a guiding light.
We enter this film with a bounce, as a garishly dressed Poppy cycles through the streets of London as the opening credits roll to a bouncy 60s-ish score by Gary Yershon. Her journey ends in a bazaar, where she places her bike against a rail and enters a bookstore. She bids the bookseller (Elliot Cowan) a hearty hello and compliments him on the quality of his bookshop. He barely acknowledges her presence. As she peruses the shelves, she keeps trying to engage him in conversation, or even just get a word out of his mouth. “I like your hat,” she offers. He looks at her as if she’s nuts. When she’s ready to leave the store, she says “Having a bad day?” He speaks! “No.” She shrugs, walks out the door, and finds that her bike has been stolen. Her response after the initial shock is, “I never had a chance to say good-bye.”
Poppy shares her flat with her long-time friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman). Both of them are elementary school teachers who traveled together all over Australia and Southeast Asia. They both taught school in Thailand, and now are back working with inner-city children. They work hard and play hard. Zoe, Poppy, Poppy’s sister Suzy (Kate O’Flynn), and some of their friends dance the night away at a disco, then go back to the flat where they continue drinking and play flirty girl games with each other.
Poppy’s active life includes jumping on trampolines and driving lessons. She meets her driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan) and as he takes her to the side streets he uses as his practice course, they have a conversation. He tells her how good an instructor he is even though the lessons are cheap and that the man Poppy spoke with on the phone to arrange the lessons is not his boss—Scott is his own boss. His first lesson involves giving her mnemonics to help her learn the parts of the car and how to use them: “En rah hah,” for the rear and sideview mirrors (which made no sense to me) sends Poppy and the audience into wails of laughter. His humorlessness and anger during this lesson reveal Scott’s insecurities, which Poppy at first jokes about and then probes as their weekly lessons continue.
One of the teachers in her school invites Poppy to her flamenco dance class after Poppy injures her back on the trampoline and has to stay off it for a while. The instructor (Karina Fernandez) and class are exactly as I remember my dance classes—a critical teacher with a colorful vocabulary for expressing motion (“Pretend you are an eagle. Lift your arms like an eagle.”) and a messed-up love life that she brings into the classroom as the students stomp toward each other in what she hopes will be a strong, territorial assertion. Her rant about her lover going off with a blonde Swedish bitch is a comedic highlight of the film.
The film does not stay in a major key throughout, however. Poppy faces the serious problem of a young boy in her class who is being violent with other children. Tim (Samuel Roukin), a social worker, is called in to help, and he and Poppy discover the boy’s mother’s boyfriend has been hitting the boy. While wandering the streets after this discovery, Poppy finds herself in a bad neighborhood, where she hears a short song repeated again and again in the recesses under an industrial bridge. She finds a homeless man (Stanley Townsend), obviously mentally ill, and tries to communicate with him. Despite some fear on both their parts, they manage to connect briefly. This scene reveals the deep impulse in Poppy to explore, reach out, help, find moments of grace in even the bleakest circumstances. She’s not always successful, but her philosophy is that there’s no harm in trying—a sentiment the film both affirms and, in its most frightening scene, disproves.
Leigh attended the screening, at which he received a Career Achievement Award, was interviewed briefly by Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips, and made himself available for a generous Q&A session. Leigh explained his process of lengthy improvisations with actors to arrive at characters and situations; only then does he write a script which is rigidly adhered to during shooting. He mentioned that he wanted to do an optimistic picture, and wanted to work with Hawkins. She is his focal point, appearing in virtually every frame of the film, helping us to see through Poppy’s eyes what a happy life looks like. Unfortunately, the audience questions were, for the most part, amazingly dumb, including one from a woman who asked how he found the actress to play Poppy. In a scathing rebuke, he accused her of not listening to him because he just explained his process of starting with actors and developing characters. He then asked her if she had another question; by then, she must have crawled under her seat.
I asked how the flamenco scene was imagined, and he said that he and Hawkins decided Poppy needed three activities outside of school. She mentioned salsa, and he countered with his favored dance form, flamenco. Karina Fernandez had no previous knowledge of flamenco; she is, in fact, not even Spanish. But once she came on board, she took weeks of lessons to learn the dance style. Her teaching approach and technique look so natural, I was amazed that she wasn’t actually a flamenco instructor.
Leigh explained that Poppy gets the guy (Tim), because “she deserves it.” This was, for me, a revealing statement that seemed to underscore the essential pessimism of Leigh’s world view. In this film, Scott is an Angry Young Man, though he targets immigrants rather than society and his elders, whose thick inner wall has made it impossible for him to understand, interpret, or communicate genuine feelings. I couldn’t help but feel that Leigh might have been a recovering Scott. His scorching rebukes of audience questioners definitely had the ring of Scott yelling at Poppy and trying to force her to take driving (that is, him) seriously.
The way that Leigh photographs Hawkins in close-up, along with her disposition, suggests an Audrey Hepburn for the new millennium. The score, the bright colors, and the bohemian lifestyle he depicts reinforced this feeling for me, though Hawkins is no classic beauty.
Hawkins adopted a peculiar laugh for Poppy that emerges in nearly every difficult situation and that I thought I would find annoying very quickly. Surprisingly, I came to like it very much, perhaps because I got a chance to see Poppy in more than a superficially silly mood. As with all of Leigh’s films, the process by which the characters are born infuses them with depth and reality that can sometimes be hard to come by using more conventional means.
Happy-Go-Lucky is perhaps one of Mike Leigh’s most conventional films, but that only adds to its charm. This is a film to lift your spirits without insulting your intelligence.