Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: Happy-Go-Lucky - Hawkins and Leigh Are Walking on Sunshine

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Movie Review: Happy-Go-Lucky - Hawkins and Leigh Are Walking on Sunshine

Happy-Go-Lucky is a new comedy by the usually darkly sober realist, Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies). The film, about a refreshingly happy schoolteacher named Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is curious in how unconventionally it creates story tension. Rather than internalize it within its main character, it externalizes it by contrasting Poppy's unrelenting good-natured spirit with a society plagued by cynicism. When we first meet Poppy, she is riding her bike through town while the film credits roll. She smiles a lot, waving at people we're certain she doesn't even know. She stops, locking her bike against a guardrail, and visits a children's bookstore. She tries striking up a conversation with the store clerk, who doesn't respond. She continues to try, while the befuddled clerk tries to figure out, as do we, what is wrong with this lady. She soon leaves the store, never giving in to the clerk's ill mood, only to find that her bike has been stolen. While most of us would lose our cool then, Poppy laughs about how she "never got the chance to say goodbye", and looks at it as an opportunity to learn to drive. Poppy's driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), is her antithesis, a dour conspiracy theorist that believes the world is run by Lucifer's agents, and that people of color are the devil's footsoldiers. It is in his scenes with her, that we are able to fully appreciate how difficult it is to sustain the happiness that she promotes. Scott is obsessive, bitter, devoutly religious, and a product of an unhappy childhood, we soon learn. As we see Poppy at her job, spying one boy bullying others, we connect the boy with Scott, realizing that Poppy is perfectly positioned to be someone who can actually change the future by professing her philosophy. While some may wonder whether this character may start to grate after 2 hours, Leigh is brilliantly able to get us past Poppy's surface to the person within. In one key scene in the film, Poppy encounters a homeless man. The man (Stanley Townsend) is an imposing bear, with a gentle demeanor that speaks in non-sequiturs. The scene is unusual because of the dark surroundings Poppy has ventured into, and for a moment, the viewer feels dislocated. It is as if the she is now in another of Leigh's darker films. The threat of this gentle bear suddenly losing his head and attacking Poppy is implied throughout, as he stands a little too close to her, changes directions often while he paces near her. It is then that one realizes how brave it is of Poppy to be so happy in a society where the danger of violence, physical or psychological, is always so close. And what a brave performance by Hawkins (Layer Cake). The role is easily one that could become a trap for an actor. She would be correct in fearing typecasting as a result of her strong performance in this role. But the complexity she brings to the performance, especially when she finally confronts Scott about his growing fearful intensity, is such that I think it will bring her Oscar accolades. Happy-Go-Lucky is playing at the 46th New York Film Festival, at 6:15 p.m. tonight, and noon tomorrow, at the Ziegfeld Theatre, 141 West 54th Street, New York, NY 10019, (212) 307-1862 Photo Credit: Simon Mein/ Courtesy of Miramax Films / Film Society of Lincoln Center

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