Happy-Go-Lucky: Chipper with a Twist

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Miramax / Everett

Sally Hawkins stars as a perky schoolteacher in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky

It has a jaunty title — Happy-Go-Lucky — and a perky protagonist in a young woman called Poppy, played just this side of annoying, but often entrancingly, by Sally Hawkins. Some of the early reviewers have convinced themselves that Mike Leigh's movie is a lightsome romp, a tribute to keeping your spirits up in the noisome atmosphere of lower middle-class London, where Poppy works as a primary school teacher.

These critics have a point. Whether she's dealing with a depressed book store clerk or the fact that her bicycle is stolen while she visits his shop, the young woman remains indefatigably chipper. And that's just the beginning of Leigh's film. As it develops she brings her good cheer to all kinds of situations — an encounter with a homeless man, a bully in her classroom, a difficult relationship with her more bourgeois sister and her dismal husband. Poppy's peppiness sustains her in other, less dramatically pointed ways as well. Like a lot of single working women, she makes a life with her girl friends — disco dancing, afternoons in the park, modest attempts at self-improvement — that to a degree compensates for their lack of romantic relationships.

Leigh is deft with this material. He does not linger long with it, yet his sketches of urban life have an unsentimental firmness and fineness about them. Still, for all his good nature and for all of Hawkins' energy, Happy-Go-Lucky did not play for me as a comedy. Its true subject seems to be anger. Call it deflected anger — a rage that is turned aside not solely by Poppy's relentless good cheer but by the fact that beneath her manner she is a sensible manager of relationships that are often on the verge of going out of control.

Take, for example, Poppy's driving lessons. They are conducted by an instructor named Scott (played by Eddie Marssan) in a state of rage, the suppression of which becomes more and more difficult for him. It's a great performance, in which unhappy autobiographical details leak out through perpetually clenched teeth. Scott's student is, of course, his opposite. He hates her boots — inappropriate, he believes, for serious engagement with the auto's pedals — and he hates the casual good cheer she brings into the claustrophobic car they are obliged to share, and above all he despises himself for being drawn to her. We know that eventually he's going to flame out disastrously, but the suspense we feel as we wait for that to happen is exquisite — funny to observe, perhaps, but discomfiting (and dangerous) as well.

Then there's the matter of her flamenco teacher. Poppy has been lured into the class by one of her female friends. For her, it's a way of filling an idle evening and getting a little exercise. For the teacher — played with arresting fire by Karina Fernandez — flamenco is life itself, a way of staking out and defending feminist territory. Her passion for the dance is obviously fueled by an unhappy love affair, the emotional details of which pour forth in the course of her instruction. Fernandez has only two scenes, but they are as potent as any you are likely to see in any movie and, like the rest of us, Poppy doesn't know whether to laugh, cry or shrug at this naked display of passion.

These sequences, like those with the driving instructor, are typical of Mike Leigh at his best. He works in an improvisatory yet controlled, way with his actors to shape and sharpen his material, and when that technique works, as it so often does in this movie, the results are unique in the contemporary cinema — behavioral honesty and intensity raised to a flash point. If this be comedy, it is so only in the nominal sense that no one dies at the end of the picture.

Indeed, things work out rather well for Poppy. At least provisionally, she finds a nice man. She retains her good relations with her friends. Her spirit remains undaunted. She is happy. And she is lucky. As we are, in finding a film that throughout stays believably in touch with lives that are messier, more melodramatic and much less overtly amusing than the title — which must be read ironically — implies.