I have to admit my hopes for Happy-Go-Lucky were not particularly high, so unmoved was I by Mike Leigh’s portentious 2004 period piece ‘Vera Drake’. And for the first twenty minutes or so I felt vindicated, as the jokes come thick and fast and very very flat. Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a wacky, mildy boho primary school teacher with garish, hippy chick dress sense and garish hippy chick friends to match. With a toothy smile and a grating, relentless optimisim even in the face of abject misery or aggression, some viewers may find empathising with Poppy a leap of faith too far. There is a fine line of course between bubbly and annoying, a line that Poppy straddles cheerily throughout the film. I had to remind myself that almost all of Leigh’s characters (Vera Drake excepting) have a cartoonish, almost burlesque vulgarity to them despite the neo-realist grounding in everyday life. There is something fanciful and parodic about this characterisation that I started to warm to surprisingly late in the film. Despite some amazingly clunky dialogue – mostly between Poppy and her sisters or friends – the film was rescued for me by the arrival of Poppy’s malevolent driving instructer Scott. A conspiracy theorist, racist and loner, Scott is both laughable and frightening in a way that reminds me of Shane Meadows’ anti-heros. I could believe there is something of Scott in many driving instructors (sorry Ken, if you’re reading!) which makes this role somehow horribly believable and pathetic.
The film is also enhanced by a non-contextualised, impressionistic sequence where Poppy is seen wandering into a derelict building where she encounters a mad Irish tramp. The tramp, who rambles incoherently, seems momentarily to see a connection in her, and vice versa. “You know?” he jibbers, rehetorically, and staring into his eyes she replies, “yes, I do”. The scene is out of joint with the film’s focus on Poppy as the chipper Primary school teacher, friend and sister, bent on supporting others, and is suggestive of some private universe that is not made explicit. On one level it adds to the portrayal of her charitable, empathetic nature, but on another it suggests a darker, sadder place that she refuses to ackowledge in front of the loved ones who depend on her.
Modern multicultural London is captured with an eye for its visual grammar that is – refreshingly – both credible and aesthetic. Leigh has lovingly framed the city’s archetectural mish-mash of old and new without idealising it, saturating the reds of the London buses without pandering to foreign audiences. The romantic orchestral score adds to the film’s winsome atmosphere, in part a homage to the so-called 1950s women’s films of Douglas Sirk. Unlike Todd Hayne’s brilliant ‘Far From Heaven‘, which lovingly recreated the genre while choosing to cleverly subvert it, Happy-Go-Lucky touches upon the genre lightly – adding a glowing cheeriness to Leigh’s often bleak black comedy. The final shot, the camera rising up to take in the lovely scene of the Regent’s Park boating lake on a summer evening, just like the ending of ‘Far From Heaven’, is a whistful, almost sentimental homage to 50s filmmaking, but works perfectly. Neither offering resolution or any particular ambiguity, it evokes a change of season both literally and in the lives of its characters.
There are echos from other Leigh films. Poppy’s surly, blokeish younger sister is identical to Brenda Blethyn’s equally monosyllabic teenage daughter in ‘Secrets and Lies’. Scott’s conspiratorial rants recall those of David Thewlis’ pre-millennial diatribes in ‘Naked’. Those echoes suggest – rather than thematic regurgitation – a return to terra firma for Leigh and also, in my opinion, to form.