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Happy-Go-Lucky

Comedy with Sally Hawkins as a very positive teacher.

April 21, 2008
Happy-Go-Lucky is one of Mike Leigh’s most inspiring films. It makes one want to be nice and do good, and it vindicates those who already are and do, recognising that the world is dotted with caring, compassionate people whose main purpose in life is to be happy and, more importantly, make other people happy.

The narrative revolves around Poppy, a North London primary school teacher played to perfection by relative newcomer Sally Hawkins. She’s a source of sunshine in ordinary surroundings (“we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”, as Oscar Wilde put it), helping a troubled boy in her class, going to salsa classes with her boss, comforting the homeless, and, in a quasi-tragic dénouement, trying to pull her deluded driving instructor back from the brink of paranoid madness. Poppy’s perpetual optimism and gratitude for life enables her to keep going and never give up, even in dark times, displaying an near-invulnerability that is not steely or hardnosed, but simply is.

Much has been made of Happy-Go-Lucky’s generally upbeat feel, and although it is noticeably lighter in tone and theme than some of Mike Leigh’s films, it is disingenuous to claim that it is his “first cheerful movie”. The optimistic strain in Leigh goes right back to Life Is Sweet, which featured a similar lead character (played by Alison Steadman). Just as his dark films (High Hopes, Naked, All Or Nothing, Vera Drake) are tempered by moments of lightness and warmth, his lighter films (Life Is Sweet, Secrets and Lies, Career Girls) always have a grounded, serious underlay to them, and this is no exception. It is in fact a Leigh film through and through, and, like Naked and Career Girls, an outstanding one.

What Leigh has done is what he always does: to produce a fresh yet familiar film which is scorchingly, satisfyingly relevant to the present. We need films like Happy-Go-Lucky to remind us that people like Poppy do and should exist, and although the film itself is unlikely to make Poppies of everyone, there is, as one line has it, “no harm in trying”.

April 21, 2008
Eddie Marsan – Happy-Go-Lucky’s not so happy driving instructor – is perhaps Britain’s most consistently impressive character actor. Hardly a household name, he’s popped up in blockbusters (like Miami Vice, Mission Impossible 3 and Gangs of New York) and indies too (21 Grams, Pierrepoint, Sixty Six). He even started out in Oxford, doing garden-play Shakespeare. Glenn Watson chats to Britain’s best kept secret…
You’re not a celebrity but you get pretty much rave reviews for your performances. How do you feel about that?
It reassures me that what I’ve been taught over the years does work. I’ve always looked at actors I’ve admired – Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent. What I love about their acting is there’s no glimpse of them in it. In an age of celebrity, people think they should be worshipped for themselves. With good actors, it’s nothing to do with them. What’s reassuring about the directors I’ve worked with, they do the same thing! The storm’s on the periphery. But when you get in there, it’s very calm.

You’ve worked with Mike Leigh, done Pierrepoint – films with a social conscience. Is that important to you?
Yes, but it has to be done well. It has to lead people. You don’t give them answers, you give them questions. I think that’s one of the jobs of films – to make people think.

You’ve worked with some amazing directors – Scorsese, Terrence Malik, Mike Leigh. Can you tell us a bit about their different working methods?
Terrence Malik (on The New World) is very fluid and organic, very Zen-like and centred, writing all the time on set. As an actor you have to be very free, take a leap. I was lucky to be in it – you can easily get cut from movies like that. Mike Leigh’s improvisational. It fitted me like a glove. He puts his faith in you: he’s got nothing without you creating the part too, so it’s a great compliment.

As a character actor you can pursue parts that people like Tom Cruise or Colin Farrell wouldn’t get to do...
Timothy Spall described it best. Some actors play wish-fulfilment characters and some play people who are subject to the universe, who aren’t conquering their environment. And that’s what character actors play. That’s the big difference between European and American drama. Actors like Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman were appreciated in Europe long before they were in America.
You mean they play characters who fail or are flawed?
No, it’s not to say they don’t prevail in the end. My character does in Sixty Six. When audiences sit down, they don’t wish they were the characters I play – but they can see themselves in them. Makes them forgive themselves a bit. The reason we punish ourselves is we think no one else is like us. My job as an actor is to play characters so people can feel less alone.

You mention a lot of fellow actors. Are you still learning all the time?
All the time. Jim Broadbent playing Lord Longford – it’s like a masterpiece with tiny brushstrokes. That’s what I want to emulate. Tim Spall, on Pierrepoint, did this big speech and everyone was captivated: they went ‘Cut’ and he said, ‘Can I do it again? I think I was enjoying myself too much’. That’s what you call good acting.

You’ve done TV – Poliakoff’s Friends and Crocodiles, series like Charles II. But you mostly do films. Is that deliberate?
Yes. It suits me, the whole rhythm. It’s a different thing to TV. I travel all over the world. And I love the process of filmmaking. I’d love to direct one day but I’m a million miles from that at the moment.

Do you watch your own performances?
Yes, I do. To make sure I can see when I’m being indulgent and when I’m not. You keep an eye on yourself. I don’t watch during filming but I do sit down afterwards.

Do you get starstruck when meeting other actors? Are you easy to work with yourself?
Daniel Day-Lewis blew me away in Gangs of New York. But you don’t get starstruck 'cos they’re just normal people. If they’re getting a cup of tea, they’ll get one for you. And, yes, I think I’m easy to work with. You’d have to ask other people! I’ve been at it for seventeen years now. I’ve been at the bottom and when things come gradually you can’t fool yourself.

You were an apprentice printer before you got into acting.
Yes. I got a job as an extra on a film in my area and thought – I’d like to do that! I didn’t have any members of my family who were into acting. I think people should live a life though before they can portray a life.

And do you like watching films generally?
I love all types of films. One of my favourites is Todd Solondz’s Happiness. In an Iranian film, the bloke playing the uncle – we all have an uncle like that. The gift to the world from international films is that once you scratch the surface, we’re all the same.

But you’re still making your mark in films.
Yes. But my kids haven’t worked it out yet. There was a trailer on TV when I did Sixty Six, and my wife was going – Look, there’s daddy! But to them it wasn’t. It was just some funny bloke.

You appeared as Malvolio in a garden play in Oxford in the early 90s. What was that like?
I can’t believe you saw that! It was a couple of years after drama school. And it was all about learning. You play a part like Malvolio – Shakespeare – you’re bound to learn a lot about dialogue. You saw that?

April 16, 2008
Are you happy? Freewheeling schoolteacher Poppy certainly is. But is her relentlessly optimistic take on life infectious, inspiring or irritating? In Mike Leigh’s upbeat comedy, Happy-Go-Lucky, the answer is - at times - all three.

Poppy (an effervescent Sally Hawkins) is irrepressibly positive, seeing the good in everyone, finding fulfillment in the friends and family around her. When her beloved bike is stolen, she’s more wistful than upset – “never had the chance to say goodbye”. Relationships are everything. But when she starts driving lessons with pent-up instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan) she meets her exact opposite.

Virtually plotless, Happy-Go-Lucky shares Poppy’s freewheeling approach to life. Following Leigh’s big hit, Vera Drake, and his social dramas Secrets and Lies and Naked, this is a deliberate change of tone – but, really, it’s still people that count. Friendship, feelings, fun and freedom are sketched and then crayoned in the boldest of colours.

Hawkins’ powerhouse performance won her the Berlin Silver Bear – and it’s well-deserved. Poppy’s perennial playfulness is underpinned with a real empathy for the people around her. An otherwise partly contrived scene where Poppy encounters a tramp is given an eerily primal touch as words fall away and Poppy connects with him through eye-contact and instinct.

But Leigh knows not everyone is, or can be, as happy as Poppy. A flamboyantly confident flamenco teacher breaks down before her class. Poppy’s ultra-ordered, conventional sister takes Poppy’s carefree character as an attack on her own constriction. A school-bully is tenderly encouraged to open up about his home life. And let’s face it, not all audience members will find love like Poppy does or have such fine friends and family.

Most effectively, Poppy’s approach crashes head on with driving instructor Scott. A complex character, Scott sees Poppy’s jokiness either as flirtatious or stupid. Unable to make her be serious behind the wheel, his own tightly-controlled world comes apart. But his outburst at Poppy is all too near the mark - though it’s uncertain that Leigh intended it as such. You wouldn’t want her in the driving seat.

Britain’s best kept secret, Eddie Marsan, is as mesmerizing as ever as the bigoted, repressed Scott, a tragi-comic figure played with real pathos. And while Leigh saturates the film with pleasantly portrayed relationships, none is more winning than the friendship between Poppy and her flatmate Zoe (an excellent Alexis Zegerman).

Leigh’s amazing eye for everyday interaction makes his characters utterly believable. And while we’re introduced to Poppy as she cycles, colourfully clothed, through London, her spirit, though undimmed, is certainly more reflective at the end. So Happy-Go-Lucky isn’t froth. But nor is it the runaway feelgood film you might think.

But you’ll still think – and feel. It’s a Mike Leigh film after all.
Is Boris in denial like the driving instructor?

Let me explain: Poppy appears to be just a dippy and annoyingly facile female who says the first thing that comes into her head. You even wonder how such a zany nut-head could be responsible for kids.

..but think: our society gets lots wrong; we have teenagers running away, self-harming or who are so lost and insecure that they need knives to give them street cred; so I applaud Mike Leigh's poignant filming right into the chinks of our armour.

Suddenly we are more aware of games people play; of how Mummy's boy can be a complete prick.

Poppy may appear to be batty but she DOES see what kids NEED before they turn into lost adults (as represented by the tramp,....)

She...sees that something happened to Scott to turn him into a frustrated control-freak. In denial, he spits blame at her just for being female, funny and free.

Her happy-go-lucky, air-head responses are a disguise for a deeply realistic individual who needs a buffer to protect her from life's brutal knocks so she wraps herself up in this bling of zane.

Her spontaneous adult fling-and-a-bit gives her personal life a touching adult slot. I needed to see that part of her, plus her bizarre family, to round her off.

Someone like that would do my head in if I had to live with her, but nobody has to! She's got a perfect flat-mate and the kids she teaches trust her.

If I met someone like Poppy, I might tell her to shut the f. up...but she'd flip something back with benign accuracy. She’s not as daft as she looks.

Mike Leigh enables us to witness a range of shots from the snooker table of cause and effect which makes us who we are.
I was bored to tears and, though the acting was superb, kept waiting for something of interest, anything, to happen.

The character of Poppy is to my mind one of the most annoying ever written and I was amazed that she had made it to adulthood without being smacked repeatedly. How she could be considered a "heroine" is beyond me. I would cross the road to avoid this ridiculous, vapid, and permanently gleeful creature should I ever have the misfortune to meet her. I cannot imagine worse psychological torture than having to sit though her trite, irritating and artificial smiles and laughs. It made me cringe. 

I found the script completely lacking in any grasp on reality and could not relate to any of the characters in any way.

Tedious, lack-lustre and in my opinion a complete waste of time and money. How someone who made the exceptional masterpiece of Vera Drake could come up with such tripe is beyond me.

I just wished I had not bothered. To me it was utterly charmless, unlike the recent Lars and the Real Girl. Or Juno, for example, which was a breath of fresh air.

First time ever I have ever disagreed with Glen though ! :)

A complete waste of some obviously very talented actors.
I rarely see a film that makes me regret the loss of the couple of hours spent in the cinema. This film made me THOROUGHLY regret the lost hours... Not sure what Leigh was after here - the film seems aimless and ultimately relies entirely on the audience finding the lead actor (Poppy) charming. I didn't. In fact I don't think I've ever encountered a more annoying film performance, so, given that the film has little plot and meanders in a pretty self-indulgent way, this was incredibly hard to sit through. Wish the reviews I'd read before had been more in line with my way of thinking. Perhaps Leigh's reputation and work as an independent has kept many reviewers feeling they need to support him, whatever the work?
I was a bit sceptical at first. The main character annoyed me more than anything at the start, but gradually the laughs started to flow. There wasn't much of a story, but it left me with a fuzzy wuzzy feeling and I actually continued to think about it for a day or two after I saw it, which didn't happen with Atonement, the last film I went to the cinema to see!

I liked most of the characters, but of course the crux of the film is between Poppy and her driving instructor. The bits towards the end made me wince!

Not as good as Secrets and Lies, but still worth a watch.
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