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Film Review: Happy-Go-Lucky – Mike Leigh

September 7th, 2008 · 8 Comments · Film

Lucky charm


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.

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8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John Self // Sep 17, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    I actually really liked this film; I’ve enjoyed previous Leigh films (esp. Secrets & Lies and Topsy Turvy) and felt this stood up with the best of them. Funny you should mention clunky dialogue as I thought the relationship between the friends was very naturalistic – probably (I surmised) because of the famous improvisation which Leigh and his actors undertake in order to finalise the script. So for once I felt that these were real characters – in that each one was created by the actor who played him/her – rather than creations of a writer.

    Also, Mrs Self, who had never seen any Mike Leigh, immediately proclaimed it her favourite film ever, though that may be because she is a primary school teacher and felt a sympathetic streak for Poppy.

  • 2 James Dalrymple // Sep 18, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    Hi John,
    I’m happy to hear both Mr and Mrs Self enjoyed it! I think dialogue-wise improvisation can veer between clunkiness and naturalism and on the whole I think this film worked really well.

  • 3 David H. Schleicher // Sep 21, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    Thanks for the sneak peak of this one, it’s definately on my list of films to see. Just based on the poster (and your thoughtful critique), the main character seems like just the type of person I would want to avoid in real life, but sometimes confrontation with certain character types through film is much safer than in the real world. Mike Leigh is always interesting, though I can’t say I always enjoy his films. Secrets & Lies, however, is one of my favorites, and I think is highly underrated these days.

  • 4 James Dalrymple // Sep 21, 2008 at 7:17 pm

    Hi David,
    Thanks for your post. I’d probably put Secrets & Lies up there as my favourite Leigh movie too.

  • 5 David H. Schleicher // Sep 22, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Funny thing…I just watched Woody Allen’s film Cassandra’s Dream last night and lo and behold, there was Sally Hawkins (as a blonde) as Colin Farrell’s girlfriend.

  • 6 James Dalrymple // Sep 22, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    What did you think of it? It got some pretty bad press in the UK I think …

  • 7 David H. Schleicher // Sep 22, 2008 at 10:24 pm

    Cassandra’s Dream wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be (it bombed stateside as well). It was nicely photographed and scored, but it fell flat in many areas and I thought the acting was subpar for a Woody film.

  • 8 James Dalrymple // Sep 23, 2008 at 7:45 am

    I saw Matchpoint, the first of the three Allen films set in London, and I thought the acting was iffy in that film. He doesn’t seem to have an ear for British dialogue at all. People just don’t speak like that. It always struck me as strange that a director could take a bunch of mainly English actors and make them all sound like they come from some non-existent province.

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