If you've never seen a film by British director Mike Leigh before, "Happy-Go-Lucky" might be the perfect choice for you.
Leigh makes films in a fairly unique way. He gathers a group of unknown actors, provides them with an outline, and watches the group as they begin to improvise their lines and work out the situations. In this way, he is able to capture dialogue and situations, which seem real because the actors are interjecting their own personalities and backgrounds into the roles. Even though he tends to work with unknown actors, actors in his films have gone on to lengthy and prolific careers and he has also re-teamed with people after they have made a name for themselves. Jim Broadbent and Timothy Spall stand out as good examples of the Leigh School. His film "Vera Drake" introduced Imelda Staunton, a little known British actress to the world and she has since appeared in a number of films, including one of the "Harry Potter" films and "Freedom Writers". Generally, Leigh's films are about the British lower class, people struggling very hard to just scrape by. Because of this, his films tend to be depressing showing a group of people on the brink of emotional and financial collapse. They are well made, but the subject matter is usually a bit of a downer. So, when he makes films like "Topsy-Turvy", his biopic about Gilbert and Sullivan, and now "Happy-Go-Lucky", they show the true breadth of his skill.
Poppy (Sally Hawkins, "Cassandra's Dream", "Vera Drake", "All or Nothing") is a young woman living with her younger sister and a friend in a small flat. She has a good job (teaching kindergarten students), a good group of friends and co-workers and a very positive outlook on life. When she leaves a bookstore and realizes her bike has been stolen, rather than get depressed and mad, she decides to get some driving lessons, to make the fateful plunge. Her driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan, "Mission Impossible III", "Vera Drake", "V for Vendetta", "Miami Vice") is a very angry man and this anger is so completely at odds with Poppy's outlook that she considers it more of a challenge than anything else. As their lessons continue, the duo gets more and more frustrated with each other taking their relationship to new places. At the same time, Poppy realizes one of her students may be acting out due to abuse and calls in a counselor. Tim (Samuel Roukin) arrives and begins to get to the heart of the matter. But he also wants to get to know Poppy better and they set up a date.
Because Leigh lets his actors work out the dialogue and reactions through improvisation, capturing the best and most truthful bits of their exercises, his films have a real air of authenticity about them. Much of what the actors say appears to be coming from a place in their subconscious, or their history, allowing the actors to give their characters a large chunk of their own personal history.
This style of filmmaking seems especially relevant in the interactions between Poppy and Scott, and this becomes the spine of the film. Scott seems to take an almost instant dislike to Poppy; she is so completely what he isn't. He is serious, angry and very, very professional. She is happy, ready and willing to joke and takes little seriously and seems only out to have a good time. As soon as she enters his car, he comments about the boots she is wearing, and how they can't provide her with the control she needs to operate an automobile. He insists she wear more sensible shoes for their next lesson. But Poppy jokes about how good they make her look and seems to barely hear him. As their lessons continue, and Scott becomes angrier and angrier, Poppy seems to view his attitude as a challenge and tries to get to the heart of the matter, to find out what happened in his life to make him so angry and bitter. Scott isn't stupid and although some of her questions clearly cut deep, causing him to pause for a moment, he just becomes angrier and more persistent.
Sally Hawkins is very good as Poppy. There appears to be nothing that will get this woman into a bad mood. When she finds her bike is missing, she is merely sad because she wasn't able to say goodbye. A surly bookstore clerk fails to ruin her day. And when she becomes concerned about a pupil, she is naturally concerned, but also hopeful that she and her colleagues can help the young boy out. In fact, Poppy is so happy and upbeat, she almost becomes annoying. Hawkins walks a very fine line, very fine, between an interesting, unique character and the type of person who just seems annoying, making most normal people cringe with the first word.
But as I watched the film, I got used to Poppy. I realized part of my annoyance with her character was that I am not used to people like her. Most people in my life, most people that I know of, have down times, moody times, and I know of very few people who are happy all the time. So, when Hawkins paints Poppy as such a positive, upbeat person, it is a little hard to bear at first. Poppy defends her life, stating she's got a good job, a great group of friends, nice family. Things could be better, things could be worse. She is just uncommonly upbeat and her friends seem to really enjoy being with her and around her.
Eddie Marsan is also very good as Scott. Scott is complicated and it will take more than a little prodding for Poppy to be able to work her magic. But she thinks she is up for the challenge. His performance is so good because he proves to be more than Poppy's equal. If she is overly happy and overly upbeat, Scott wears all of the years of disappointment on his face, all of the trials appear every time his eyes swerve towards Poppy. He shows so much emotion, but also seems to change his feelings on the turn of a dime. Initially, he is all business, but as soon as Poppy gets in his car, he is annoyed at her lack of preparation and attention to detail. As Poppy tries to get him to loosen up, there seems to be a moment when he considers this, his facial features seem to lighten a little. Then he realizes this is a woman who is probably like all of the other women who have wronged him and he returns to his previous, stern persona. With each of their encounters, Scott seems more on the edge of letting go, which makes him all the more determined to remain steadfast and bitter. And this serves to make Poppy all the more determined to try to help Scott, to get to the heart of the matter.
The dynamic between Poppy and Scott is what makes the film so interesting. We have very few examples of two characters meeting and interacting in such a unique and interesting way. As we watch them interact we feel like we are watching two real people as they deal with their own problems.
There is a less successful attempt to introduce another such character into Poppy's life; she attends a Flamenco dance class with her school's head master and the teacher is suitably eccentric, suitably wild and emotional. But this character isn't as fleshed out as Scott and the relationship and the dance instructor seem more like caricatures.
Towards the end of the film, Poppy meets Tim (Samuel Roukin) and their budding relationship adds a nice touch and proves that Poppy has many reasons to be so "Happy-Go-Lucky".