There aren’t many more underrated directors currently working on an international scale than Mike Leigh. Making features since the late-80s, he’s got more than one masterpiece under his belt, a distinct style, an unbelievable ability to pull performances, and a diverse body of work.
Happy-Go-Lucky sounds like the exact kind of film I’d dislike. The tagline: “The one movie this fall that will put a smile on your face.” Cynical-me thinks that this means sap, corny jokes, and gangs-all-here family dinners at the end. Luckily that’s not what this is, though it is a very happy and uplifting film.
Sally Hawkins plays Poppy who is pervasively the titular emotion. She teaches children, lives with her deadpan roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), takes driving lessons from a fire-and-brimstone spitting, emotionally unbalanced instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan giving an awesome performance), befriends a homeless man and dates a social worker.
Unlike many traditional narratives, but very much like a lot of Leigh’s other work, there is no one inciting incident that drives the story. Think of The Maltese Falcon, where the loss of the falcon sets things in motion. Or any Batman film, where a violent criminal and Bruce Wayne’s own psychosis click things along. Happy-Go-Lucky has things that make other things happen, sure: a child is beating other children at school, which leads to Poppy’s intervention, which leads to her meeting her social worker-boyfriend, for example. But none of these individual moments tie together to work towards one common goal or resolution aside from anything as simple as “here’s Poppy’s life and attitude, and this is how she deals with things.”
Leigh’s writing is so strong, his dialogue so believable, his interactions so interesting, that his eschewing of traditional suspense is actually one of the strengths here. Were Poppy to discover the aforementioned bully in the first act, investigate his home situation in the second act, have a melodramatic confrontation with his parents in the third act, and then meet the social worker at the end, we’d miss out on much more of her life…which is precisely the attitude that she (and Leigh) are proponents of – don’t miss out on life.
In some sense, Happy-Go-Lucky feels like a precursor to Leigh’s latest film, the criminally underrated 2010 piece, Another Year. Aside from a common character, both follow similar family dynamics. They could (and should) be seen as companion pieces where one looks primarily at the bright (HGL) and the other primarily at the dark (AY).
Leigh’s aesthetics aren’t always easy to talk about. When I wrote about Another Year when it came out I remember talking about his use of the close-up as masterful in his timing and the emotional content expressed. That’s not the case here. Yes, there are close-ups, and yes, they are very well-used, but they don’t intend to hold the same meaning as in his more recent picture.
The color scheme in here is too easy. It’s pastel and bright. 80s colors and costumes. I think more telling in Happy-Go-Lucky is Leigh’s willingness to mix the light and the dark, on an emotional basis. Despite the title, not all are happy in here. Zoe doesn’t meet anyone (though her and Poppy’s Celine and Julie Go Boating ending indicates that she isn’t solely depressed), our only hope that the troubled child at school will be okay comes from Poppy saying “he’ll be okay,” Poppy’s sisters both argue and seem depressed, and Scott…well he’s a whole story in and of himself. The point being: the title refers to Poppy, but also to something that no one else has. Because we’re the omniscient viewer, we’re able to see that it’s something that they might want (this whimsicality), but we also see that they may never get there. Yeah, it’s a feel-good movie, but one in which not everyone feels good.