Happy-Go-Lucky is a deceptively simple British film from writer-director Mike Leigh that was easily one of my favorite films from 2008. In its own low-key and oddly charming way, this offbeat little movie engages the audience right from the start, but it’s hard to tell where the story wants to take you. With splendid performances from its entire cast, this is one of those small, talky films that might seem to be going nowhere but you realize how deep the narrative is cutting by the end. This isn’t a film with a “plot” per se, but rather, it’s about people, their relationships, and how the human spirit thrives in each and every one of us. There are no “bad guys,” no massive plot twists, no shoot-outs or car chases, as this is a movie about the human condition, and beneath its sunny exterior, rests some dark truths that everyone faces at one time or another in their lives. I’ve long been a fan of Leigh’s smart and stylish work, as he’s been one of the most dependable filmmakers over the last 20 years. This is one of his best films despite it not having as high of a profile as others in his phenomenal filmography.
Sally Hawkins, in a tour de force performance, is Poppy, an eternally good-natured woman living in London with her friend and sister. She’s a teacher, a great friend, a caring sister, a party animal, and above all, a woman with the capacity to love, respect, and think positively about anything and anyone, no matter how flawed they may be. We see her in class, working with her students, trying to give them a better education. We see her with her friends, having a blast, and bringing joy to their lives. This must have been an extremely tough role to pull off for Hawkins, as she had to imbue Poppy with the sunniest of dispositions and never once stray from her upbeat spirit. Even when things around her aren’t quite properly working, she never loses her cool, and always remains optimistic. For instance, after her bike is stolen, the first thing that crosses her mind is sadness in that she wasn’t able to “say good bye” to her precious set of wheels. Never mind that some asshole has stolen it; that’s just part of life to Poppy. She’s upset that she didn’t get to say good bye. Some cynical viewers might find her character to be annoying, too upbeat, and too unrelenting. And they might be correct. But those people need to realize that there are plenty of people like Poppy out there in the real world. We just don’t often get a chance to spend time with them when we go to the movies, as storytellers tend to dwell on the depressing or the dark. Happy-Go-Lucky is that rare film about the celebration of life and how some people can raise the spirits of everyone around them, no matter how problematic their lives may be.
This theory is put to the test when Poppy starts taking driving lessons from a rather unpleasant driving instructor named Scott, brilliantly played by veteran character actor Eddie Marsan, who has made memorable appearances in a diverse range of films including Miami Vice, The New World, and Hancock. Scott is damaged goods and Poppy knows it. But she doesn’t let that deter her. Through their weekly lessons together, Poppy starts to work her happy-magic on Scott, who alternates between being receptive to her charms, and completely shut off from them. Scott’s got a whole series of rage management issues and through his interactions with Poppy, some of those issues become more troubling, and some are put to rest. Marsan got to unload in a fiery, explosive scene towards the end of the film that is the most emotionally hard-hitting moment of the piece; he’s absolutely terrific.
And so is the film overall. I didn’t know too much about it before I walked into the theater and viewed it nearly eight years ago, and since then, I’ve seen it a few more times, and I always marvel at its humanistic qualities and how Leigh really wanted to present a lead character who had a lot going on under the surface. A film like Happy-Go-Lucky is rare in that it celebrates all that is potentially wonderful about people rather than focusing on the inherent flaws of human beings. And while there is a dark subtext to some of the narrative upon further reflection, you get swept up by Poppy’s unending love for life and her ability to make all those around her smile with delight. Leigh has always been a filmmaker interested in human behavior, and in films such as Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, Naked, Topsy Turvy, and Mr. Turner, you fall totally under his smooth filmmaking spell, which gives way to the elegant manner in which in which people interact with each other. Happy-Go-Lucky is a pure delight from start to finish.