Poppy (Hawkins) is a London primary school teacher. After her bike is stolen she gets driving lessons, but her teacher, Scott (Marsan), turns out to be a bit of a nut. She begins learning flamenco. One of the kids in her class has problems at home. And al
It is a fairly common misconception that crying on demand is one of the hardest things an actor can do. It’s not. Sneezing convincingly, for example, is tougher. As is laughing. And by that we mean proper laughing - laughing with your eyes, to paraphrase Roald Dahl, rather than with your mouth. In this sense, Mike Leigh regular Sally Hawkins delivers a remarkable performance as Poppy, a woman who greets every situation with a smile, a joke and a guffaw, as if she’s hooked on nitrous oxide.
Towards the end of the film, her flatmate advises her, “You can’t make everyone ’appy all the time,” to which she replies, “Yeah, but there’s no ’arm in tryin’.” Some would disagree, and that’s the driving dynamic of Leigh’s latest film: in an insular, insecure urban society, what do we make of someone like Poppy? She certainly challenges the assumptions of those who encounter her, from a snooty bookshop clerk to unhinged driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan), to us, the audience. She’s not stupid, she’s not naive, she’s not even self-deceptive - we uncover no dark soul broiling beneath the gleaming smile and dizzy mannerisms.
You spend the movie half-expecting Leigh to punish her for her persistent frivolity, yet while his dramatic constructions certainly test Poppy’s bounce (including one unnecessary extended scene where she encounters a mad tramp), it’s less a case of the world trying to grind her down than her trying, for want of a better phrase, to grind the world up. This is most evident in the driving lesson episodes, with Marsan’s invective-spitting misanthrope set up as the hate-mongering yang to Poppy’s mirthful ying. Here, Marsan - who must be tiring of playing misfits - comes close to unbalancing the film, Scott’s beetroot-faced rants tainting the naturalism somewhat.
Still, those who only know Leigh by his (unfair) reputation as a miserablist might be surprised to find that ultimately, Happy-Go-Lucky is a genuine feelgood film. There’s a good chance that you’ll wish you could face all life’s tribulations Poppy-style. You might even be tempted to give it a go — after all, there’s no ’arm in tryin’.
Mike Leigh draws a bravura performance out of Sally Hawkins, and she in return makes Poppy one of Leighs best characters yet - up there with the likes of Vera Drake or Beverly from Abigails Party.