Tuesday, Sep. 09, 2008


Written and directed by Mike Leigh. With Sally Hawkins, Alexis Zegerman, Eddie Marsan, Karina Fernande.

Improv auteur Leigh's first movie since the Oscar-nominated Vera Drake four years ago isn't exactly about the search for romance, but it is unabashedly in love with its heroine. Poppy (Hawkins) is a primary school teacher in London's Finsbury Park neighborhood, and someone who hugs life, in all its human forms, so close to her she practically chokes it. She's 30 but acts 13; you can see her as the class clown with a gag reflex — she turns everything into a joke. Not from the comic's usual font of cynicism, but because she has the ability to see herself and her surroundings from a God's-eye view, and up there it's sunny.

When Leigh attached jolly titles to his earlier films (High Hopes, Life Is Sweet), he was clearly being ironic or sarcastic. But this one really is happy-go-lucky. In a way it's the anti-Vera Drake. That story of a working-class mum who made her living as an illegal abortionist was two hours of grim going (Hawkins played the rich girl raped by her boyfriend, Marsan the shy fellow who marries Vera's daughter). Here, not only is Poppy a dear but she finds redeeming qualities in everyone from a child who beats up his schoolmates to a homeless raver she meets one spooky night. Only a taxi driver (Marden) saddled with right-wing prejudices — which makes him the villain in any Leigh film — frightens our girl and proves impervious to her healing chipperness.

Most critics who've seen Happy-Go-Lucky — it won Hawkins the Best Actress prize at the Berlin Film Festival — like it or hate it based on their reaction to Poppy and to Hawkins' performance. Both the character's remorseless optimism and the actress's gummy smile can be wearying. But though Leigh may be endorsing Poppy's worldview, he's basically saying only that she's someone worth studying for a couple hours. And love her or not, you'll find that this ungainly but lovely creature does hold the screen, the way the young Rita Tushingham did in a similar role in the 1961 A Taste of Honey. Star quality isn't a respecter of fashions in prettiness.

And if you don't find Hawkins and Poppy eye- and heart-catching, stick around anyway for the flamenco lesson. As the teacher, Fernande gives lessons in commandeering the screen with wit, grace and foot-stomping ferocity.