Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky is a deceptive movie. It puts itself forth as a bright-and-sunny feel-good film, but whether Leigh’s intentions are quite that simple is another matter altogether. The idea that Leigh is even capable of making a completely nonserious movie is a little hard to swallow. Even in such a relatively upbeat piece of work as his Gilbert and Sullivan “biopic,” Topsy-Turvy (1999), there’s a deep undercurrent of sadness and realism. Much the same is true here, with his slice-of-life look into the world of Pauline “Poppy” Cross (Sally Hawkins, The Painted Veil). It’s ultimately upbeat, and it works on the charm of its main character, but it’s not mindlessly cheerful—and neither is its heroine.
As is common with Leigh’s work, Happy-Go-Lucky isn’t a plot-driven affair. It simply introduces us to Poppy Cross (is her name itself symbolic?) and allows us to follow her for a period of time before retreating—in one of the most amazing, if simple-looking, shots you’ll see this year—back into our own realm. Quite a few things do happen during our time with her, but it would be stretching things considerably to say that these events constitute a plot in the traditional sense. The one thing that comes closest to plot is Poppy’s burgeoning romance with a social worker, Tim (newcomer Samuel Roukin), and it’s perhaps the weakest part of the film. We learn some things about Poppy, and she learns some things about herself. In this instance, that’s quite enough.
Poppy is a school teacher, and she’s happy enough at that. In fact, Poppy is happy—or seems to be—about everything. The film starts with her bicycling along, seemingly in love with the world and everyone and everything in it. She goes into a bookshop and tries to spread her sunny worldview, but makes not a dent in the taciturn shopkeeper. Outside, she finds her bicycle has been stolen. Rather than get angry about this, she’s simply amused by its absence and decides it’s “flown the nest.” In the hands of another actress and another filmmaker, any right-minded viewer might be forgiven for wishing that Poppy would meet the business end of a steamroller by this point in the proceedings. But Hawkins and Leigh hold this at bay—partly by the force of Hawkins’ screen presence and partly because of the almost surreal nature of Poppy’s lack of concern over anything that comes her way.
The film shows Poppy with her friends and, most especially, with her flatmate, Zoe (newcomer Alexis Zegerman), whose relationship with Poppy is deliberately vague, but whose outer worldliness makes a good contrast to Poppy. A lot of what we see seems inconsequential at first, but it isn’t. Take the scenes with the Flamenco instructor (newcomer Karina Fernandez). Yes, they’re good-humored (notice how the other students smile at Poppy), and they’re funny. But at their core, they’re really about Poppy fighting to hold onto her sense of hopefulness in the midst of a world that seems increasingly full of angry people who long ago gave up daring to hope. The pent-up rage of the dance teacher—which she can’t even conceal very well—is but one instance of this. There are others.
A stretch of the film concerns Poppy dealing with one of her students, who has developed a rage that expresses itself in the meaningless bullying of other children. Rather than approach him with ditzy optimism, Poppy works at getting to the reasons behind his actions. Poppy isn’t the happy airhead we may have taken her for. This is most forcefully examined in the film’s extended sequences involving her relationship with a driving instructor named Scott (Eddie Marsan, The Illusionist), a man who, unlike Poppy, is totally unsuited to be giving anyone instruction in anything.
Scott is perpetually angry. He’s also petty, mean and bigoted. He’s not merely mad at the world, he seems to want to revenge himself on it—by way of abusing Poppy, with whom he constantly finds nothing but fault. Poppy, of course, decides to stick it out—a decision that leads to revelations about both characters, and about which I’ll say no more.
Yes, the film meanders—and it sometimes seems wrongheaded in that regard. A sequence involving Poppy and a demented homeless man (Stanley Townsend, Flawless) felt at first like a melodramatic misstep, but discovering Leigh’s rationale (to take us out of our comfort zone) makes its inclusion more reasonable—as do Poppy’s own very real misgivings about the wisdom of this encounter. At bottom, this may be the perfect film for this moment in history. Since what it’s ultimately about isn’t Poppy’s seemingly unflagging cheerfulness, but about how she uses her cheerfulness to tenaciously cling on to an increasingly precious commodity: hope. Poppy realizes that it takes a lot of work to retain hope in the face of so much evidence—real or forced on us—that there’s little reason for it. There’s something pretty fine about that as a theme. Rated R for language.