A Mike Leigh Joint

Just spotted another must-see title for my 2008 moviegoing calendar.

Mike Leigh‘s Secrets and Lies remains one of my all-time favorite films. Naked, while it is unrelentingly dark and disturbing, contains my favorite big screen performance by an actor (David Thewlis, although Daniel Day-Lewis may give him a run for his money, the more I think about There Will Be Blood.) Topsy-Turvy was a hoot, and a high point in Jim Broadbent’s colorful career. And Vera Drake was sorely mistreated by Christian moviegoers who either misunderstood it as an abortion propaganda piece, or who didn’t see the movie at all and still condemned it as an abortion propaganda piece.

His latest, Happy-Go-Lucky, was just picked up by Miramax, and it sounds like quite a departure. It made its big screen debut today at Berlinale. Here’s a description from a new profile of the director.

Happy-Go-Lucky marks a departure for the Salford-born director, as his central character Poppy seems to have a fulfilled life. The first thing we see happen to Poppy is that her bicycle gets stolen. Such events may be a common occurrence on the streets of Camden, north London, where the film is set, but here on the cinema screen it momentarily harks back to Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Italian neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thief … that is, until Poppy shrugs her shoulders and laughs it off, making it clear that, surprisingly, the title of the movie is not ironic.

Sally Hawkins plays Poppy rather like the coyote from the children’s cartoon Road Runner. No matter what obstacles are put in her way, she gets right back up and gets on with it. The first impression given of Poppy is that she has been transplanted from some grotesque parallel universe. Hawkins, who is in every scene, tests our desire to side with her character by hamming up her performance and pushing the boundaries of believability. She’s a bewildering comic pastiche of a working-class girl and Paris Hilton. She has no sense of responsibility, so it’s a surprise when we see her at work… as a primary-school teacher.

Having established such a character, Leigh does something remarkable; he makes us fall in love with Poppy, and at the same time gives us a state-of-the-nation assessment of Britain. The end of the Blair decade has seen a surge of artists and writers focus their attention on contemporary life, and there is no one more qualified in British cinema than Leigh to take a stab at it.

Leigh does this by replacing one of his favourite characters, the taxi-driver, with a driving instructor. Eddie Marsan is brilliant as the raconteur on the woes of modern British life. These are awkward and at times preachy sentiments, encapsulated by a moment in which Marsan orders his pupil to lock the car doors when he sees two black youths on bikes.

Typically, Leigh directs the bleakest scenes for laughs. He uses Poppy’s occupation to emphasise the importance of looking after children to ensure they do not grow up with serious hang-ups, but other than that life is shown in the most positive light of any of his pictures.

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