written and directed by Mike Leigh
starring Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan
Mike Leigh has created another piece of cinema that puts complex women on display in full force. Secret & Lies (one of my favorite films of the 90s and probably of all time) did this very well, as did 2004's Vera Drake, which boasted a great lead performance from Imelda Staunton. But were you paying attention? Sally Hawkins was in Vera Drake too. And her two characters couldn't be more different.
Everyone has someone in their life like Poppy, and if you don't, you're probably her. Perpetually cheerful, always trying to put the best face on everything. I will preface everything by saying that Sally Hawkins truly gives one of the year's best performances. That she was able to stop me from hating this character is a testament to her power. Imagine this character, as played by say Cameron Diaz, directed by Nancy Myers. Actually don't. I just went to a really horrible place.
Hawkins plays Poppy, a school teacher who loves her job, loves her friends and loves her life. The movie opens with her trying to cheer up a local book store proprietor, smile plastered happily on her face...even when she ventures outside and finds that her bicycle has been stolen. This is Poppy. Put your best face forward, move on and keep going. But what Mike Leigh has done here is very clever. Because Poppy's sunny disposition, while seemingly neverending, has not made her blind to the fact that the world is often a horrible place. She's not stupid, nor is she naive and simple. Consider the scenes with Poppy and her driving instructor, (played by Eddie Marsan) who is very much the anti-Poppy (angry, bitter and always frowning). He yells, he barks, he says nasty things. While it's clear that they don't go by unnoticed by Poppy, she doesn't allow the smile to falter in a big way. She doesn't allow this perpetually bitter man to ruin her happy mood.
Mike Leigh has always made good use of somewhat improvositational dialogue that feels like you've been inserted into a segment of life, rather than a movie. He's a master at this, and Happy-Go-Lucky is no different. He's also excellent at characterization, something many writers are severely lacking. Wouldn't it have been easy to have Poppy be secretly miserable all the time and be using her happiness as a facade to numb the pain? But Leigh's not interested in simple. Poppy is happy--genuinely happy--in spite of what's going on around her (people being cruel to one another, hurting one another and the world generally going to shit). And boy, do we ever not know what to do with happiness.