Poppy, the elementary schoolteacher in Mike Leigh’s exuberant new film Happy-Go-Lucky, might be the cheeriest character to grace the screen this year. The opening credits begin with a beautiful shot of Poppy (played by an exceptional Sally Hawkins) pedaling her bicycle down what seems to be the longest street in London. The shot sets the tone for the rest of the film, which is a complete contrast to Leigh’s usual bleak, isolated, and tension-filled dramas (Naked, Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake).
Happy-Go-Lucky, a movie directed by Mike Leigh. Now playing at the Uptown Theatre, 2906 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis. For tickets and information, see moviefone.com.
Leigh’s films have always had memorable performances, and this one has quite a few—including her roommate of 10 years (Alexis Zegerman), a malcontent driving instructor (a brilliant Eddie Marsan), and a hot-blooded Flamenco teacher (newcomer Karina Fernandez). Marsan’s performance in particular, as driving instructor Scott, is especially riveting: taking his frustrations out on Poppy as he is doing his best to teach her how to drive, while hiding his emotional baggage and suffering through each lesson he gives her.
Poppy’s positive attitude and optimism throughout the film is contagious, and Hawkins glides through the film effortlessly. The film itself has only the slightest narrative arc. Leigh stayed true to his directorial technique of depending on improvised acting with no script prior to shooting, and the result is so charming it’s hard to resist not smiling throughout the film—particularly in one hilarious scene where Poppy attends her first flamenco class wearing knee-high boots.
There is a gentle social message in Happy-Go-Lucky: teachers, not only in England but across the globe, are hard-working and underpaid. The overall tone of the film, however, is as optimistic as its free-spirited heroine.
Jim Brunzell III writes on film for the Daily Planet and hosts KFAI’s Movie Talk.