Happiness is an elusive quality in a Mike Leigh film. Sometimes, in his films, you will meet characters who try to cheer other people up, but there is usually a darker side to their perkiness. The photographer who tries to get people to smile in Secrets and Lies is stressed out by conflicts within his family; the woman who provides illegal abortions in Vera Drake naively tells her clients they will all be “right as rain” after she has left, and is caught off-guard when one of them almost dies thanks to her efforts; and when Gilbert & Sullivan premiere their latest musical comedy in Topsy-Turvy, a depressed Gilbert responds to the applause by privately grumbling to his neglected wife, “There’s something inherently disappointing about success.”
So when you hear that Leigh’s newest film is about an irrepressibly upbeat woman who takes life’s woes in stride, you can hardly be blamed for wondering what the catch is. Will she have a dark side? Will she have a dark secret? Will her zest for life lead to tragedy? Surely, at some point, some shoe, somewhere, will drop.
But, well, no, that doesn’t happen, not quite, though Leigh certainly puts his newest, cheeriest protagonist to the test — starting with one of the very first scenes, in which Poppy (Sally Hawkins), after riding happily through London, parks her bike outside a bookstore and then returns to find that it has been stolen. Does she let this incident get her down? Not in the least; she simply shrugs and sighs that she never got to say goodbye. Later, she says that she could never replace the bike, almost as though it had been a pet, and so she takes driving lessons instead — and her instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), is a bitter, agitated sort of bloke who doesn’t respond well at all to the constant jokes that Poppy makes as he tries to focus her attention.
You have to sympathize with Scott on some level: Poppy, who is 30, can seem so flighty at times that you wonder how safe a driver she could ever really be. But their first driving lesson is hilarious, as Poppy giggles and teases, and Scott — seemingly the frustrated, no-nonsense voice of common sense — suddenly gives the rear-view mirror an exotic name and says it has something to do with fallen angels. Scott immediately defends his remark by saying it’s just a memory aide, and he does have a point: I haven’t forgotten his rear-view mirror either, since seeing this scene. But Poppy bounces back with an even funnier, and sillier, remark. And on it goes.
One of the first things we learn about Poppy is that she has friends, and they like to go to clubs and stay up all night laughing over the dumbest things. The morning after one such night, when her friends and her sister Suzy (Kate O’Flynn) have gone back to their homes, Poppy and her roommate Zoe (the delightfully deadpan Alexis Zegerman) start making animal masks out of paper bags. But it isn’t until later that you discover why they are doing this: both Poppy and Zoe are elementary school teachers, and this is one of the activities they have planned for their students.
The fact that Poppy teaches children, and the way Leigh lets this information unfold, raise some interesting questions about the relationship between happiness and maturity. Has Poppy grown up? Is her happiness a form of denial, part of a refusal to grow up and face the world as it is? Or is it a sign that she has grown up better than most, and kept a spirit of childlike wonder and empathy that others have lost?
The film quickly disabuses us of any notion that childhood, itself, is a time of perfect bliss — or that teachers like Poppy never need to be serious in dealing with their students. At one point, Poppy looks out the window and sees a boy bullying another boy. Will she merely watch, or will she intervene? Leigh keeps us in suspense by cutting from the school to one of Poppy’s driving lessons (where she speculates that Scott might be the way he is because he was bullied as a kid), and back again. But the gist of this scene, and others, is that there is more to Poppy than we might suspect at first. When she and her friends go to the pub and talk about the dangers their students face on the Internet, Poppy says certain things make her “angry,” and for just a moment, you can sense a sort of turmoil behind her happy façade.
Leigh puts Poppy in other situations, too, that cast an interesting light on the mix of joy and concern that she feels. In one scene, she visits her brittle kid sister Helen (Caroline Martin), who is married and pregnant and, it seems, gets along better with their parents; Helen also openly questions whether Poppy is really as happy as she seems. In another scene, Poppy comes across a homeless man (Stanley Townsend, who played Zechariah in The Nativity Story) who seems to be spouting gibberish, but she seems fascinated and keen to connect with him, just the same; when he says, over and over, “Know what I mean?”, she replies, calmly and thoughtfully, “Yeah, I do,” and there is not a hint of condescension in her voice.
Some bits in this film will seem very familiar to viewers of Leigh’s earlier films. The scene in which Helen shows off her suburban home, and another bit in which Poppy says she’s “ravishing” when what she means is “ravenous,” are lifted practically straight out of Secrets and Lies, though they are given different twists here. Also, in one scene, Scott goes into a rant that has something to do with the number 666, which sounds an awful lot like one of David Thewlis’s rants in Naked. It is said that Leigh gets his actors to develop their characters and improvise their scenes over the course of weeks, if not months, of workshops: the result is a series of essentially compassionate films that pay great attention to their characters, and encourage us to do the same. But at moments like these, you can’t help but think that Leigh has begun to repeat himself, kind of like latter-day Woody Allen.
Nevertheless, there is something infectious and unique about Poppy’s joy, and Leigh seems to have caught the bug. He peppers the film with comic, out-of-nowhere details, like the scene where one of Poppy’s colleagues practices a few dance steps in the school hallway. (When we meet the colleague’s flamenco teacher herself, she’s a show-stealer.) And when things turn serious, as they inevitably do, he lets Poppy reveal herself to be a person of surprising strength, courage and resolve. She can’t make everyone happy, but for many of us in the audience, she’ll do all right.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
Talk About It
1. “It’s a lot of work, being a grown-up,” says Zoe. How do the characters in this film do that work? Do they avoid it in any way? Is Poppy’s constant perkiness a sign of her refusal to grow up? Or does it mean she has grown up better than others?
2. Why does the film include the sequence with Helen, Poppy’s married and pregnant sister? What does it say about maturity and growing up? Note how Helen refuses to let her husband use the PlayStation. How does this compare to the scenes in which Poppy and Zoe express concern over their students’ use of video games?
3. How do relationships change as people get older? How should they change? Poppy says she has lived with Zoe for ten years, but she also expresses interest in getting a boyfriend. How would, and should, one relationship affect the other? Do you want Poppy to stay with her best friend, or to find someone else? Explain.
4. Scott angrily tells Poppy that she thinks the world revolves around her. Is that a fair criticism? Why or why not? Why do you think he would see her that way?
5. Why does the film include the scene with the homeless man? Why do you think Poppy says, “Yeah, I do” when he keeps saying “Know what I mean?”?
The Family Corner
For parents to consider
Happy-Go-Lucky is rated R for language (about a dozen four-letter words and a couple of names taken in vain). It also includes a scene of a man and woman removing each other’s shirts before going to bed, and another scene in which several women joke about their cleavage and the things they use to pad out their bras. A man and a woman also get into a physical fight.
— A version of this review was first published at Christianity Today Movies.