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Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh
(Directors on Directors)
by Amy Raphael
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "Happy-Go-Lucky"

To be sure, director Mike Leigh's comedy intends to affirm life through the character of a 30-year old woman who refuses to be repressed by the selfishness, greed, crime and evil that surrounds her. Good enough. Poppy (Sally Hawkins) finds a way to laugh her way through it, seeking to remain cheerful throughout. Happy go lucky. Except that the woman who Hawkins creates to fulfil Leigh's concept comes off more as a nervous twitch and a goofball.

When deeper matters present themselves, she reveals a model of compassion for others and a responsive partner for romance. In spite of the obsessive laughter she brings to every event and encounter, a serious human being is at the core of her heart beat. You just have to be very patient about dealing with her defense mechanisms.

To put the point across about her proclivity to ignore calamity, Leigh's first ploy is to have her face the fact that someone stole her bike and have her deal with it as a slight annoyance that she can still laugh at as she relates the bad fortune to roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) and younger sister Suzy (Kate O'Flynn). A few drinks with them at the pub will wash it all away.

Now, in the style of any good optimist, driving lessons are in order to replace Poppy's former means of transportation. She is, after all, a 30-year old. Time to grow up; be an adult. But, alas, this provides another test of her laugh-filled facade in the form of a driving instructor from hell, Scott (Eddie Marsan), who is the cynical antithesis of herself and a functional psychotic.

The driving sessions are bouts of personality disorder, with him demanding Poppy not attempt to drive with boots, that she focus more on his instruction and stop her incessant chattiness and pay heed to the dangers of the road, especially when she's at the wheel of his own vehicle. But more is lurking behind his diatribe of complaint about his client. He's showing up to spy on her even when they have no appointment for a lesson. She has become the obsession of a mad nerd.

Relieving this tension for Poppy are flamenco classes in which a Spanish teacher (Karina Fernandez) attempts to fashion a room full of vedy English citizens, whose culture she scorns at every opportunity, into the passionate style demanded by the dance and it's aggressive origins. Some of that is actually transmitted to the class, Poppy included.

Before seriousness gets completely away from Leigh's premise by the sheer lightweightedness of the situations, the sessions with Poppy in her classroom of tykes turn serious when she spots one boy beating up on another. Recognizing the symptoms of problems at home, she takes the boy under her wing and gently builds trust until, with the help of the school principal and the school's hottie social worker Scott (Samuel Roukin) they glean where the anger stems from. As for Scott, he's onto Poppy like dressing on salad, seeing past the personality tics to the good qualities she possesses. A genuine romance builds.

The bullying boy sequence gets little traction in the screenplay, and seems largely a device to get the heroine hooked up. Stranger, though, is a sequence of Poppy venturing out at night, alone, in a downtrodden neighborhood. Following the bully's disclosure that his mom's boyfriend has likely been abusing him in one way or another, one might think this nocturnal trek was to find the boy's household and confront the mother. But it turns out to be an isolated incident in which she tries to play mother hen with a somewhat demented tramp. Nothing more and completely detached from anything else. Leigh has a strange way to inject tension and avoid going down a diversionary path.

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I cite this to characterize a certain weird strain that flows through the piece, possibly a result of the auteur's process to have the actors create the characters in improv sessions before the cameras roll. In my view, this story of Poppy is not so much about "a free-spirited Londoner with an irrepressible zeal for life," as the press kit publicity would have it, but a study of a woman whose interior fears and feelings of inferiority are fronted by a goofy facade that seems more a mask than a defining identity.

The missing part of the scenario, it seems to this observer, are sessions with a shrink to open the gate to her real issues. From this point of view, forced laughter doesn't a comedy make.

Lest I be taken as too critical, I must add that, in the end, the spending of time with the lady isn't without reward. In the end, she has charmed us even as she's aroused our concern and regard. In my view, a rather sympathetic case study.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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