Monday, November 10, 2008
The last few years have been understandably bleak at the cinema. Just as the post-Watergate era led to fits of dark brilliance in the mid- to late-70s, tensions over the war in Iraq and the failing economy are producing a number of incredible films that nevertheless leave you feeling drained. Trying to correct the cosmic balance is Mike Leigh's new film "Happy-Go-Lucky," the story of an unflinchingly optimistic woman named Poppy.
Poppy, an elementary schoolteacher, starts the film cheerfully biking through London, stopping at a book store and trying to cheer up the surly clerk. She goes outside only to find that her bike has been stolen, but it doesn't get her down in the slightest. Robbed of her mode of transit, she decides to take driving lessons.
From this simple setup comes a surprisingly complex movie. We see Poppy's relationship with her sister and flatmate, how they can sometimes be exasperated by her disposition yet are themselves perked up by their proximity to her. When a little boy in her class begins acting violent towards other children, she works with him and gets close to the school counselor, who is also trying to figure out what's wrong in the lad's life.
The scenes with the child are some of the most telling. Poppy has an innate ability to read people, to figure out what is bothering them and how best to try to fix it. In the film's finest moment, she stumbles across a deranged homeless man, who repeats a garbled nonsense with increasing ferocity. Poppy pauses, not out of fear but of concern, and talks to him. At first she might as well be talking to a wall, but her warmth seeps into the man, and they come to have a basic conversation.
The most interesting supporting character is Poppy's driving instructor, Scott. Played by comedian Eddie Marsan. Scott is a raging bastard, the kind of instructor you report after one lesson and get fired. He screams, insults and condescends to Poppy, who takes it all in stride and tries to loosen him up. Watching their teacher-student relationship is fascinating; Scott represents the dark cynicism of the world, and he doesn't know what to make of the optimism before him.
Poppy is a strange anomaly; her cheerfulness only adds to her physical beauty and Scott, the manifestation of hopelessness and insecurity, hates her all the more because of how much he desires to be her. Marsan plays Scott with a mixture of revulsion and pity; he is a terrible person, but the possibility of happiness only makes him worse because he genuinely cannot cope with the concept. When tensions finally come to a head, you see what makes both characters tick, and the results are shocking. Hawkins is deservedly getting praise for her role, but Marsan is every bit as captivating and necessary to this movie.
Sally Hawkins has the hardest job I've seen given to an actor in a long time. Evil? That's child's play compared to pure goodness. There are so many ways she could have messed up, not least of which is that she could have played Poppy like a ditz. There are moments when you see a revealing bit of body language, or a flash in the eyes that show Poppy's disposition slamming up against reality. The flashes in her eyes are not signs of inner pain but of outer pain trying to bring her down.
In some ways, this is the year's "Juno;" as with that film, this places a completely unrealistic character into the world and uses her flights of fancy to teach us something about the real world. Poppy's role is to be so unrelentingly good that she affects those around her, and her aura spills out of the screen and into the audience. Like the characters in "Happy-Go-Lucky," the results may not always be positive. Leigh and his heavily-rehearsed actors have mixed the real with fantasy, creating a world that seems immediate yet distant. Some may hate Poppy for her sunniness, but doesn't that tell you something about those people?