19 November 2008

At the movies: Happy-Go-Lucky.

Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a primary school teacher in South London possessed of a truly sunny disposition. A firm believer in looking on the bright side of life, this woman is, and she’s found a good network of friends that help her get along just fine. Her bike recently stolen, she decides to take driving lessons, and her instructor is a paranoid and racist conspiracy theorist (Eddie Marsan) who nevertheless seems to be looking for some kind of positivity in his life. So we have dueling ideologies in one corner, but Happy-Go-Lucky is really the kind of breath of fresh air that anyone tired of miserabilism or just looking for something frothy and fun should check out.

Mike Leigh, the man who specializes in journeys into the dark places of the human heart, has made a feel-good comedy? Absolutely. Without altering his methodology (extensive preparation and rehearsals, improvising the script over several weeks with the cast, evolving a complete universe for the characters), he’s decided to spend some time looking on the bright side of life. With Poppy and her friends, the film not only has a believable and interesting collective of characters, but an astonishing ensemble of meaty roles for women. Sex and the City be damned, here’s a group of women that actually seem fun to be around.

Director Mike Leigh has always had a gift for getting great performances, but Sally Hawkins’ Poppy is practically luminescent. It’s the kind of performance that wins awards and gets people’s attention, and thanks to her anchor, the film is as refreshing and nurturing as a homemade sandwich or a puppy that knows instinctively not to pee on the floor. Leigh has trod a vaguely similar path before, with 1999’s Gilbert and Sullivan history Topsy-Turvy, but here he’s in completely new territory, and the end result is winning acclaim all over the world, as well as a new accolade: accessible. With an effect undiminished by multiple viewings, Happy-Go-Lucky will fix whatever’s wrong for you for a little while, leaving you happy, hopeful, and regretting nothing.

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