Monday, September 15, 2008

Happy-Go-Lucky ***1/2

Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Sally Hawkins
Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Samuel Roukin, Sylvestra Le Touzel

It's ironic we've come to live in a world where the idea of happiness can't be taken without a grain of salt or a hint of cynicism.
It's even more surprising that Mike Leigh, known for his takes on the trials and tribulations of the British working class, comes up with a film that deals with happiness as something that resides out of bourgeoisie dreams and is perhaps possible.
After pushing his characters (and the actors and actresses playing them) to explore the darkest confines of human nature, he now gives us Poppy (Hawkins) a thirty year old, single Londoner who can't help but be happy all the time.
She works as an elementary school teacher where she is loved by her students, she lives in a rented apartment with her best friend Zoe (Zegerman), goes to pubs, jumps on trampolines after work and dances the night away in clubs.
In a sense she has attained the careless kind of life everyone both fears and desires, which also leads the audience to take an almost immediate position on where Poppy stands (leading us to examine where we stand in our world views as well).
Poppy's either a Pollyanna-like role model or a delusional woman who would be better off in a mental institution.
Whatever the case is, during the first part of the film her combination of boldly colored clothing and an incessant, chirpy giggle accompanying all her lines will either become the most annoying thing you have ever seen, or charming qualities that make you fall for her.
She begins taking driving lessons, after a bittersweet incident occurs during the opening credits, and her instructor Scott (the outstanding Marsan who travels through emotions effortlessly), a homophobic, racist, paranoid pessimist might very well be everything she's not. When she asks if he's a Satanist, he tells her he's the exact opposite, leading her to innocently wonder "are you the Pope?", which also comes as a wink from Leigh who never says no to the possibility of a debate.
Less preoccupied with storytelling than with sketching a character, the film consists of vignettes where we see how Polly interacts with different people and environments.
Particularly interesting are the men in her life with whom Leigh seems to be representing his duelling vision of who this woman is. While Scott accuses her of "celebrating chaos" after listening to her joyful views on life, for social worker Tim (Roukin), who first comes into her life out of a bleak event involving one of her pupils, she is a breath of fresh air (it's magical to see how Leigh is able to sexualize someone who could've easily gone into celibate, saintly territory).
With no pressure to take the plot anywhere, the director takes his time putting his heroine in varied situations which include a poetic encounter with a homeless man (an ethereal Stanley Townsend) and, in which might become the movie's trademark scene, out of the blue Flamenco lessons with a passionate, fiery instructor (scene stealing Karina Fernández).
In a sense it's as if Leigh is experimenting how Poppy will react, this doubtful approach comes as no surprise considering that Hawkins makes the performance and the character all her own.
Her bubbly, brilliant performance is the film and she makes of Poppy a breathtaking being to behold. Her restlessness is small only compared to her joy.
You watch Poppy not with envy, but with doubt as to why is she that she has become able to see only the good, when the rest of us obsess with the bad.
Hawkins' layered work leaves us no doubt that there must be some pain within this woman and sometimes the film becomes a battlefield between the overflowing joy of the actress and the unabashedly human conscious work of the director. Especially in scenes between her and Marsan who works as a unique counterpart.
He builds situations that make us wonder if this will be the moment when the rug is pulled from under our feet and Poppy will reveal a big, dark secret. Slightly more disturbing is the fact that somehow we take the inevitability of this as a sure thing and even feel the need to find out something bad that will justify everything else.
When that moment takes longer to arrive the film poses existential questions regarding how comfortable we've become with misery and how scary the prospects of happiness seem.
Near the end of the film, there is a slight twist which seems as if it's about to solve all our issues regarding Poppy, considering that Leigh has taken little interest in building a backstory for us.
As we wonder whether she's a phony or the real thing the most miraculous thing occurs and we realize that perhaps neither Hawkins or Leigh know for sure themselves.
"Happy-Go-Lucky" may be a film that never really knows where it's going, but like it's lead character it isn't afraid of what's coming next.


Michael Parsons said...

I am still waiting to see this film. I am really hoping Hawkins and Leigh can pull off Oscar noms for this. Do you think it is possible?

Jose said...

Well considering that Leigh is kind of an Academy favorite and that he has managed to get two of his leading ladies into the Best Actress category, I don't see why Hawkins couldn't make it...
Then again I do see it and once you see the film you'll realize that her performance is so bubbly, free spirited and plain wonderful that it comes off looking effortless and the Academy has a hard time acknowledging the fact that good acting doesn't have to come from tragic characters.

woodstock said...

i was one of the those that loved poppy right away. i confess that i hung on expecting something tragic to come and prove that pessimism is always stronger. but as i found myself more and more fond of poppy's reslessness and joy, i couldn't but wish i knew her personally. even her name is cute!! poppy!

hawkins is perfection and it upset me a lot that she didn't get a nod. however, i'm used to americans and the academy prefering to rave on annoying bitches like ellen page's juno, than real natural performances like hawkins's poppy. the fact that we hardly gonna a meet a person like poppy but as we watch her go through life we just hope to run into her someday, is a proof of hawkins's brilliant performance.