I have to say that Mike Leigh is quite possibly the best filmmaker Britain has ever produced – he is responsible for some of the most incredible films ever made, including Naked, one of my all-time favorite movies. I have yet to encounter a Mike Leigh film I didn’t absolutely adore, because each and every one of them is incredible in their own very special way. Leigh always manages to find a great balance between comedies and dramas, and even within the confines of the two genres, he is able to find the humour in serious situations, and the sadness in lighthearted moments. The latest Leigh film that I managed to watch is Happy-Go-Lucky, perhaps his most optimistic film (other than the aptly titled Life if Sweet).
Happy-Go-Lucky is about Pauline “Poppy” Cross (Sally Hawkins), a thirty-year-old schoolteacher with an infectious joie de vivre, priding herself on being an optimistic, upbeat and cheerful young woman who loves life and wants to try and make everyone happy. She lives with her best friend and fellow teacher Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) and every Saturday, she sets out on driving lessons with the grumpy and cynical Scott (Eddie Marsan), who is the complete opposite of her. Over the course of the film, Poppy is shown to be navigating her life in the best way she knows how, by just always looking on the bright side and always keeping a cheerful attitude.
I was very curious about Happy-Go-Lucky for one reason – Sally Hawkins. I have heard endless praise about her performance here, and I was dying to see what the hype was about. Hawkins is a reliable actress, and has shown herself to be splendid in both British productions (such as the wonderful Submarine) and American productions (such as her Academy Award-nominated work in Blue Jasmine). Happy-Go-Lucky, however, puts Hawkins right at the centre, in the leading role – and she absolutely kills it. She is hilarious, touching and brilliant, and she gives a one-of-kind performance that didn’t fail to amaze me with how utterly and clearly incredible it was. Leigh seems to have a knack for creating characters that we just can’t ignore, and Poppy serves as a great contrast to Leigh’s greatest creation, Johnny (played so masterfully by David Thewlis in Naked, a performance I consider one of the greatest of all time).
You just can’t take your eyes off of Poppy, because her perky demeanour and sweetness is just so contagious, and she will leave you with a smile. It helps that Hawkins has a natural charm that allows her to carry the lighthearted moments of the character, as well as being able to really sell the dramatic aspects of this film. I really do think that Hawkins gives a star-making turn in this film, and it shocked me to see how complex her character really was. Hawkins really got under the skin of this character and brought out a fully-fleshed, three-dimensional personality that made this film such a joy to watch.
Contrasting Hawkins’ incredible and energetic performance is that of Eddie Marsan, who seems to come close to stealing the show in his smaller performance as driving instructor Scott. Utterly nasty and very cynical, Marsan is incredible at creating a character who we actually love despite the fact that he is bitter, cold and just plain rude most of the time. He has an emotional arc that may not be very overt, but we can see how slowly the character develops. He is a troubled man, and Marsan brings out a far more layered performance than we would expect, and his final scene in this film is truly heartbreaking. Kudos to Leigh and Marsan for collaborating on creating a truly extraordinary character.
The thing about Happy-Go-Lucky is that is a funny film, perhaps the funniest film Mike Leigh has ever made. It is optimistic, lighthearted and leaves you in a wonderful mood, and in a world where many films try and take the serious route and leave you a little depressed, it is refreshing to see a film that just taks the approach of leaving the audience in a good mood. Yet, Happy-Go-Lucky also touches on some very serious themes – there is no denying that the film has a bit of a melancholy running through it, and the sadness of this film does come through several times, yet it isn’t ever depressing, and it is actually pretty hopeful in a strange way.
Happy-Go-Lucky may not reach the dauntingly brilliant heights of Naked, nor the social excellence that was Secrets & Lies, but it is by no means a lesser work – it is sweet and hopeful, very funny and often very serious. It is a lovely experience, and Sally Hawkins is just spectacular. There is very little to criticize about this film, and as a whole, it is just a delightful experience.