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”.