For Sprightly Teacher, Life Is Sweet Indeed
It will be interesting to gauge the reaction of American audiences to "Happy-Go-Lucky," Mike Leigh’s latest film and winner of the Silver Bear at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival. The film is Leigh’s riposte to perceptions that he’s a purveyor of grim kitchen-sink realism, as he presents us with a main character, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), who is an eternal optimist who strives to see the good in everyone and every situation. Such a disposition is not an alien one to Americans, with their culture that highly prizes optimism and friendliness; but the film and its central character Poppy haven’t gone down too well in Mr. Leigh’s native Britain, where cynicism and pessimism are virtually national traits.
Mr. Leigh claims that he was inspired to create a character whose contentedness is refreshing, because cinema usually deals with tension and conflict. The character of Poppy is a simple reminder that life for most of us is generally good and that art needn’t have to batter us over the head with the bad things in life. Perhaps Mr. Leigh also feels that much of the negativity, cynicism and mistrust that are commonplace in a world that’s getting increasingly anxious about economic downturn, ecological collapse and fracturing international harmony could easily be avoided if there were more Poppies around. Which is all fair enough, but the reason that most drama concerns conflict is that it creates dramatic momentum whereas happiness alone can be a rather static narrative proposition.
Poppy has sparked something of a debate in England about whether her incessant sunniness is unrealistic and makes the film too annoying to enjoy. Perhaps I am in the minority, but I have known people who are like Poppy and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to craft a film around a character like her. But I still have my reservations of exactly what Mr. Leigh was trying to achieve with this film.
"Happy-Go-Lucky" simply presents us with the character of Poppy but doesn’t seem to know what to do with her. She’s a bit of an eternal adolescent, being 30 but single and still living with a university friend, unpressured into finding a partner or settling down. She’s happy in her work and is set on self improvement, whether by learning to drive or taking tango lessons. But what is the purpose of her story? The sole friction in the action concerns her relationship with the obnoxious driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan), but the culmination of their clash of personalities doesn’t result in an epiphany for either of them. Both seemingly go their separate ways having learnt nothing from each other.
The other key scene in the film shows her unwise encounter with a mentally-imbalanced vagrant. It’s a tense scene that we anticipate will end badly. It might be refreshing that it doesn’t; but if Mr. Leigh is suggesting that trust and honesty should extend to stranding yourself down dark alleys with homeless people, then he’s opening himself up to ridicule.
There has been another debate raging about the film in the letter section of Britain’s prestigious Sight & Sound magazine, about whether the film is hypocritical for presenting Scott as a racist character when the film itself displays its own racial stereotypes in the character of the Spanish tango teacher. In fact, Mr. Leigh has been presenting characters that verge on the point of cliché during his whole career, as part of his strange and distinctive style of presenting slightly stereotypical characters in the most realistic scenarios imaginable.
My own problem with the film is that Mr. Leigh seems to be retreading old ground. He has been plowing the furrow of ultra-realism for many films now, and it goes without saying that he has absolutely nailed this aspect of dramatic filmmaking. But shouldn’t Mr. Leigh’s films aim to offer more than that? His best work offers a personal, visual theme (the unforgiving London in "Naked") or a socio-political angle ("Vera Drake") that lends weight to the obligatory accomplished acting and realistic screenplays. Mr. Leigh seems in danger of jettisoning the cinematic qualities he successfully developed over many years in adapting his television skills to the filmic medium.
As Poppy rows off into the distance on her rowing boat at the end of the film, it feels like nothing has changed. We’ve simply witnessed a snapshot of a fictional someone’s life, but neither the character nor the viewer has been particularly enriched by the experience.
Opens on Oct. 10 in Manhattan and on April 18 in Britain.
Directed and written by Mike Leigh; director of photography, Dick Pope; edited by Jim Clark; music by Gary Yershon; production designer, Mark Tildesley; produced by Simon Channing-Williams; released by Miramax Films (United States) and Momentum Pictures (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.
WITH: Sally Hawkins (Poppy), Alexis Zegerman (Zoe) and Eddie Marsan (Scott).