Happy-Go-Lucky Movie Review (3 1/2 Stars)
Movie Review by Michael Phillips
Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky
Mike Leigh's film "Happy-Go-Lucky" is a real pleasure, and besides being Leigh's most buoyantly comic feature it's a marvelous showcase for Sally Hawkins, who has worked twice before with the British writer-director.
Hawkins, whose squinty smile is one of the bright lights of the fall, plays Poppy, a grade school instructor. Her good cheer is so intense, when we first see her -- riding her bicycle through the North London streets, grinning and waving -- you wonder: Is she tetched?
She's tetched, all right: tetched with the sort of positivism many Leigh films (though hardly all) tend to marginalize as a nearly impossible dream. In "Naked," David Thewlis portrayed an excoriating Manchester lout.
"Happy-Go-Lucky" is the flip side of "Naked," an ode to the power of irrational exuberance.
Since the film premiered in England this year, debate has centered on the question of Poppy being either a delight or an unnerving reverse-harpy. Leigh and company know what they're doing. By making her mostly the former but a little bit of the latter, the film acquires some necessary tension.
Leigh keeps the narrative machinery to a minimum. We learn a bit about where this woman has come from (cold, controlling father, unseen on camera) and what she has done with her young adulthood (some international travel; no long-term boyfriend). Poppy's bike is stolen in the opening scene ("didn't even get a chance to say good bye," she says, to no one in particular, looking at the spot on the street where her bike used to be). This paves the way for a series of driving lessons. Poppy's instructor is Scott (Eddie Marsan), a tense, withdrawn soul whose first lesson carries little harbingers of trouble. "You're my last student," the unsmiling Scott tells his new pupil, regarding the day's schedule. The sentence is shaded with a double meaning.
"Happy-Go-Lucky" is a movie about teachers and students. Poppy spends half the movie trying to fly, making elaborate bird costumes for her preteen students, bouncing on a trampoline for recreation. Then she accompanies a fellow faculty member to a flamenco class. Karina Fernandez plays the instructor, and Leigh has never crafted a more adroit comic sequence than Poppy's introduction to the fiery, emotional universe of flamenco. These lessons open a window for Poppy; in a more sobering way, so do her weekly driving lessons, in which a twisted-up, lust-addled character -- somewhat ham-handed in the writing, though Marsan's excellent -- responds, in a panic, to Poppy as chaos incarnate. When he's not fixating on the impractical nature of her thigh-high boots he's going on about "the disease of multiculturalism."
Just when you wonder if Poppy's going to stick to a single monochromatic line of attack, other colors seep to the surface. Some of these "reveals" are more effective than others. There's a late-night encounter between Poppy and a muttering homeless man (spectacularly well-played by Stanley Townsend) designed, too clearly I think, to show us a high-pitched character in a moment of low-key empathy. Like Brenda Blethyn in Leigh's "Secrets & Lies," Hawkins' Poppy is perched right on the edge of caricature, then pulled back from the brink just in time.
All the acting is top-flight, including Alexis Zegerman's sardonic Zoe, Poppy's 10-years-and-counting flat-mate and fellow teacher. Through meetings with a troubled student in her class, Poppy gets to know a social worker (Samuel Roukin) who becomes a ripe romantic prospect for our heroine. It's a bit neat, but a lot of Leigh's work tends toward a heightened theatrical neatness. When it works, the result is a slice of life that, in terms of honest cinematic storytelling, is more like a slice of cake. (Leigh's recent films include the Gilbert & Sullivan portrait "Topsy-Turvy," which is a modern classic.) Hawkins is wonderful, and I happily saw "Happy-Go-Lucky" twice just to see the way Poppy handles her flamenco lessons. The character is right in sync with the lovely waltz themes traipsing through composer Gary Yershon's score -- sprightly, witty, a tiny bit out of control. There's something of the harlequin in Leigh's conception of this bright, manic young woman. If Scott, the driving instructor seething with resentment, represents the choleric humor, Poppy is its opposite: a sanguine reminder that we're all here together, so cheer up, mate.
MPAA rating: R (for language).
Running time: 1:58.
Starring: Sally Hawkins (Poppy); Eddie Marsan (Scott); Alexis Zegerman (Zoe); Kate O'Flynn (Suzy); Karina Fernandez (flamenco teacher); Samuel Roukin (Tim); Stanley Townsend (tramp).
Written and directed by Mike Leigh; photographed by Dick Pope; edited by Jim Clark; music by Gary Yershon; production designed by Mike Tildesley; produced by Simon Channing Williams. A Miramax Films release.
About the Movie "Happy-Go-Lucky"
Poppy is a young primary school teacher. A free spirit, she is open and generous - as funny and anarchic as she is focussed and responsible.
She has time for everybody, and whoever she meets falls in love with her.
She loves the children she teaches, and works hard. She shares a flat with a girlfriend, enjoys her social life, is caring towards her younger sisters, and takes flamenco and trampoline lessons.
When she starts driving lessons, her maturity and her sense of humour help her to deal with a manic instructor.
Comfortable with being single, she meets through work a guy with whom she really clicks.
Through the streets of central London, Poppy cycles cheerfully, taking in the places and people she passes, occasionally smiling and waving. Chaining her bike to some railings, she ambles around a London street market, and goes into a bookshop. The man working in there is unresponsive to her breezy banter. She is particularly taken by a children's book, but leaves without buying anything.
She returns to where she left her bike, and discovers that it has been stolen. She is good-humoured and relaxed about this.
That night she dances furiously in a club with a group of four young women and in the early hours of the morning they wander back to the flat she shares with one of them. Poppy, her sister Suzy, her flatmate Zoe, and her friends, Dawn and Alice, smoke and chat drunkenly. Dawn and Alice leave and Suzy stays over.
The next morning, a bright and cheerful Poppy wakes up a hung-over Suzy and they lie on the bed chatting about Suzy's forthcoming exams. Zoe joins them on the bed. Suzy leaves, and Poppy and Zoe talk about Poppy's other sister, Helen, who is pregnant, and who they are soon to visit.
Poppy and Zoe, both primary school teachers, plan how to make birds-head masks for the children in their classes to do. Poppy has decided not to replace the stolen bike, but to learn how to drive.
At school, Poppy teaches her children about bird migration, and then the children paint the masks she has prepared and run around the classroom with her pretending to be birds. At another school, Zoe does the same.
After lessons have finished, Poppy chats with fellow teacher Tash, who talks about her family problems. Poppy then attends her weekly trampoline session.
While Zoe is cooking supper that evening, Poppy tells her that she has booked her first driving lesson.
Her instructor is Scott, a neurotic man in his 30s, who does not respond well to Poppy's open and chatty manner. His seething anger is in complete contrast to her relaxed nature.
He tells his job as a teacher is to get rid of the bad habits and encourage the good, and her that her boots are inappropriate footwear for a driving lesson. He is taken aback to discover that she is a teacher.
After another trampolining session, Poppy is walking down a corridor at work and suddenly gets a painful twinge in her back. She sees her headmistress, Heather, who invites Poppy to join her at a weekly flamenco class.
Poppy visits an osteopath, who treats her back problem.
Her second driving lesson and Scott is once again in a bad mood, this time because of his previous pupil. Poppy ignores his aggression and continues to be chirpy. He complains again about her boots.
As they reach a T-junction, two black cyclists pass by and Scott tells Poppy to lock the doors of the car. She is both horrified and amused, and he loses his temper.
Poppy accompanies Heather to a flamenco lesson, taken by the flamboyant Rosita from Seville. Rosita bemoans the lack of the necessary passionate anger in her pupils, but the examples she uses of how betrayed women should feel and how this should be reflected in the dance soon take on a very personal, specific note and she bursts into tears and runs from the room.
At a local pub, Poppy and Heather discuss the lesson. Heather asks how Poppy's love-life is and Poppy replies that it is non-existent but she's fine with that. They talk about Heather's teenage daughter, who Heather hopes will take a year off to travel. Poppy talks about her own travelling with Zoe - to Australia and south-east Asia, including a six-month spell teaching in Thailand.
At school the next day, Poppy sees a boy bullying another boy during playtime.
At her third driving lesson, Scott complains that she is too easily distracted, and he continues to lose his temper with her, telling her that she is arrogant, disruptive and celebrates chaos. He can't believe that she is a primary teacher, and says that he disliked school and believes it stifles individuality. Poppy takes all this cheerfully.
At school, Poppy sees the same boy bullying, and stops him.
The Flamenco class performs well, and is praised by Rosita.
In the classroom, Nick, the boy bullying on the previous occasions, is hitting another child. After class has finished, Poppy talks to him, and tells him that she is there to help. She goes to see Heather to discuss the child's problems.
Walking home at night, Poppy is passing some waste-land when she hears a man chanting incoherently. She goes to investigate and encounters a tramp who she engages in conversation as he moves from moments of lucidity to drunken ramblings and occasional threats of violence. There is clearly some rapport between them. He eventually wanders off into the night.
At the flat, Poppy tells Zoe about her day, but doesn't mention the tramp. Zoe jokingly reads Poppy's palm and tells her she sees a man about to appear on the scene.
At school, Poppy and Heather bring social worker Tim to meet Nick, who gradually reveals that he is being hit by his mother's boyfriend. Tim goes to leave, and he and Poppy begin to flirt. He says that he'd like to see her again, and she asks for his phone number.
At her next driving lesson, Scott starts to ask Poppy personal questions - does she live with her parents, how old is she, does she live alone? She tells him she has lived with her flat-mate for ten years and that they love each other. Scott misinterprets her meaning, and when she realises his error, she does nothing to correct him. He suddenly gets angry again about her boots. She remains good-humoured.
Turning a corner, Poppy makes a joke about an imaginary juggernaut approaching, and Scott explodes, telling her that he's terminating the lesson. They swap seats. He tells her to return to the passenger seat as he's never given up on a pupil. Poppy takes this in her stride. As they drive away, Scott begins another rant, about the 'disease of multiculturalism'.
Poppy, Suzy and Zoe drive in the latter's car to the coast to visit the heavily pregnant Helen, and her meek husband Jamie.
After a guided tour from Helen of the small, modern house and garden, they have drinks and a barbecue, but later Helen refuses to let Suzy and Jamie play computer games.
Helen asks if her pregnancy is making Poppy broody. She also wants to know when Poppy is going to get herself on to the property ladder and start taking life seriously. Poppy says she is happy and loves her life and her freedom.
Helen takes this as an attack on her, and storms out of the room.
The next day they all take a walk along the sea-front, and Poppy calls Tim and they make a date.
Arriving back in London, Poppy spots Scott standing in the street staring up at her flat, but when she shouts out his name, he runs off, and disappears.
Poppy and Tim meet for a drink in a bar. They chat and flirt and then go back to his flat, where she spends the night. The next morning he offers to drive her home, so that she won't be late for her driving lesson. He meets Zoe. As he is about to leave, the doorbell rings. In the street, Scott is waiting. He is unfriendly to Tim, and his mood worsens when he sees Tim give Poppy a good-bye kiss.
She asks him about his mysterious disappearance from outside her flat the previous weekend, and he claims to have been out of town. She says she doesn't believe him.
Scott drives, and a rant about other drivers and speed cameras turns racist. They swap seats and Poppy tells him she is not going anywhere and that he needs to calm down and he's dangerous. As far as she is concerned, the lesson is over and she takes the car keys. Scott explodes and grabs her by the hair. She manages to flee and he chases her around the car. She threatens to call the police and tells him to calm down. He accuses her of flirting with him, and says that she wasn't interested in learning to drive, she merely wanted to rein him in, and tantalise him. He accuses her of wanting to be adored.
She calms him down, and apologises for upsetting him. But when he says 'Same time next week?' she shakes her head and returns the keys. He asks tearfully whether Tim is her boyfriend, but she doesn't reply. She just looks at him in pity.
He drives off and she walks back through the streets in a reflective mood.
Poppy and Zoe are in a rowing boat in the middle of a lake in a London park. Zoe says that she is going to give up smoking, and that perhaps Poppy should give up being too nice to people. She wants Poppy to call the police about Scott, but Poppy thinks that won't help him.
Poppy says that they are lucky, and Zoe agrees.
Poppy takes a call from Tim and chats affectionately with him.
The two women carry on rowing.
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