Happy-Go-Lucky UK 2008
Directed by Mike Leigh
Momentum Pictures Region 2
There’s something very unusual about Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky... in that it actually does what it says on the tin and is a genuinely upbeat and cheerful little movie. And upbeat and cheerful are two words that I mostly wouldn’t associate with the incredible artistic talent of Mike Leigh because, as brilliant and amazing as his movies usually are, they do tend to ultimately err on the side of depression and the misery of despair. But that’s usually okay because they are smart, interesting little filmic gems and they are never boring.
This particular film, however, has a main protagonist who is almost totally committed to being light and fluffy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and this character, brilliantly played by Sally Hawkins (who you will fall in love with by the end of the movie) is a poster girl for the genuinely happy faction of our society... I’ve met a few of them and they're mostly a myth because, my experience of excessively, shove-their-good-humour-down-your-throat people in general seems to be that after the first sign things are not going to go quite right, they generally crack under pressure and lie in a coma until things hopefully go away... not a good way to attempt to deal with problems.
But Sally Hawkins is, apart from a couple of little, mostly fleeting moments throughout the running time of this movie, deliriously happy from start to finish... almost unbearably so in some cases in fact. The first main scene after a credits sequence where we see her character, Poppy, riding her bike in London, is a sequence in a bookshop with a miserably unwelcoming shop keeper who is unimpressed by Poppy’s up and up, talky-friendly nature but we see that this really doesn’t bother Poppy in the slightest... and then she discovers her bike has been stolen but instead of getting overtly distressed about this and shouting or swearing or generally being affected by her plight, she just stands their unbelieving making upbeat comments about her current situation... Mike Leigh is smart, he sets this character up just right so we can take a measure of her and see exactly the kind of person she is... but then he does a very strange thing for him.
Once the character has been well established in the audiences mind with a few scenes demonstrating Poppy’s unshakeable devotion to this enviable mindset, Mike Leigh does what you would normally expect a director of his calibre to do... that is he throws Poppy into a series of encounters with people who are a damn sight less than happy and waits to see how she gets on with them. Like the diametrically opposed driving instructor Scott, played by British treasure and Leigh regular Eddie Marsan who is both intensely irritated by, but strangely drawn to, Poppy’s personality... and who shouts quite a bit at her. Or Poppy’s pregnant sister who seems to be well set up but instead tries to project her own unhappiness and insecurity onto others... like Poppy who is having none of it.
But the strange thing is that, where you would expect Mike Leigh to ensure that Poppy gets burdened by all these people and slip into a depression as you would expect her to in any other of his films, in this one Poppy stays strangely on top of things and the only time you really see her in anything like a contemplative mood about the true trouble and strife of this world comes at one, for me, key point in the movie which I shall call Poppy’s “Man with a Sack” sequence... after Federico Fellini.
To explain that last remark... Federico Fellini’s absolute masterpiece Nights of Cabiria originally featured a very key sequence which producer Dino De Laurentis thought was rubbish and slowed the movie down, so he cut it out and absconded with it for the original release and didn’t return it to Fellini until many decades later after Fellini had pleaded that he return the scene so his film students could see the film properly. This was restored to the movie and it is this version of the film which plays on modern home video cassette and DVD presentations of this key work. I can’t believe that De Laurentis cut this scene out as, for me, this is the key sequence of the movie. It’s the point in the narrative where Cabiria is able to see that her life as a prostitute is actually going to get her nowhere but old and poor and used up and it is this moment of self-aware clarity that gives the character the impetus for her course for the rest of the movie. I can’t imagine what this film must have played like at cinemas in its original release prints but the jump in Cabiria’s attitude with this sequence missing must have seemed quite an odd mis-step on Fellini’s part to audiences, who wouldn’t have known about De Laurentis’ villainous role on this occasion.
So for me, a “man with a sack” sequence is a key sequence in a film where a character becomes aware of the true nature of his or her plight and adjust their attitude as a consequence. And in Happy-Go-Lucky, this kind of scene occurs when Poppy hears a noise and goes to investigate a large, dangerous looking tramp who talks in mostly nonsensical repeat words and half-finished sentences which convey an emotion without clarification or direction of that emotion. It would be safe to say that the poor tramp, astonishingly portrayed by a guy named Stanley Townsend, is in a bad way emotionally and certainly, in terms of audience perception, represents a serious threat to Poppy... he’s a big, aggressive looking guy. This is a person, however, who causes Poppy to become more reflective about things and when the tramp, for the umpteenth time, asks in his deep, gravelly voice... “ya know?”... Poppy confirms that she does, indeed, know.
But this is the point where this Mike Leigh film continues to go in a diametrically opposite way to a regular Mike Leigh film as Poppy contemplates this, remains ultimately unaffected and carries on being her Happy-Go-Lucky self. She processes the emotions and reconstitutes them as her usual currency of happy, positive vibes and the strength of the character is that she can rise above the pitfalls and traps of life and confidently dismiss them in the spirit of “oh well” and continue her attempt to bring mirth and jollity to the world.
She’s a very strong character and a lovable one, it has to be said, but on my second watch of this movie (I first caught it in cinemas back on its original release), I found that I wasn’t quite responding to her in quite the same way. She began to wind me up a little and it’s obvious she was winding up some of the other, more downbeat characters in the film and I realised we’d seen this kind of character before from Mike Leigh... just not in such a happy incarnation. My favourite movie by this director is the excellent Naked, starring the unbelievably talented David Thewlis as the irrepressible Johnny. Now you can’t exactly say that this guy is the happiest person in the world but he is a person who tends to prod and probe at people and things with an enthusiasm which winds people up and gets him into trouble... in fact, towards the end of the movie the character takes a lot of punishment due to the fact that he just can’t leave things alone. He wants to know how things tick... he’s like Holden Caulfield on acid and I realised when I was watching Happy-Go-Lucky that Poppy is just a lighter, happier, non-threatening variation of this initial Johnny character. She teases and pushes and explores people because she just can’t help herself... there is no choice. So in some ways, Poppy is not entirely a departure for Mike Leigh... just a departure in a single sustained tone.
Like all Mike Leigh films, Happy-Go-Lucky is a little bit of a masterpiece and deserves your attention... it is also filled with quite addictive characters which will ultimately encourage repeat viewings on DVD... at least in my household. One thing’s for sure though... if you watch this one it might take you a while to get the phrase “en-ra-ha” out of your head. Take a peek and see if I'm not right!