Is it possible to make a compelling film about a truly good character? The unwritten laws of cinema (and storytelling in general) would seem to suggest otherwise; there has to be conflict, everyone has to have a dark side or an impure motive and even happy endings have to be hard-won.

Well, Mike Leigh’s latest is a glorious refutation of this idea. Sally Hawkins’ Poppy is a thoroughly nice, funny, open-hearted and optimistic character. She ought to be too good to be true, but she isn’t. After nearly two hours in her company you’ll wish you could spend more time with her – and that you knew more people like her.

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The film opens with her cycling through central London, then reducing a Camden Town bookshop assistant to abject terror simply by chatting and trying to be nice to him. The film’s message is clear from the outset; too many people simply travel through life with their heads down, and increasing the sum of human happiness is as much about trying to connect with each other in all the little ways as it is with the big planet-saving gestures.

Even when Poppy finds on leaving the shop that her bike’s been nicked, she tries to be positive about it, seeing it as the ideal opportunity to start taking driving lessons. Her instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan) couldn’t be more different to her - neat and tidy, conservative with a very large ‘C’, super-organised and distrustful of people in general and other Londoners in particular.

It’s obvious that he’s happy in a universe where safety is of paramount importance and there’s a right and wrong way of doing everything. Poppy’s entrance into this world exasperates him; she’s easily distracted, wears ‘inappropriate boots’ and wants learning to drive to be as much fun as everything else in her life. Clearly they’re set on a collision course, but when the impact comes it’s still sudden and unexpected...

But this isn’t really a tight, narrative-driven film. The relationship between Poppy and Scott takes up relatively little screen time, and for the most part Leigh simply looks at Poppy’s life through a series of individual but interlinked snapshots. She goes out on the razz with her friends; spends a day preparing a lesson with flatmate and fellow teacher Zoe (Alexis Zegerman); acts as a surrogate mum to younger sister Suzy (Kate O’Flynn); has a go at flamenco dancing. Every scene builds up a picture of a positive, good-hearted person, aware of the dark side of life but determined to enjoy it anyway.

It would be tempting to turn a character like this into a loveable klutz or a fey ingénue, but the scenes at her school show that she’s a dedicated professional; when she sees one of the boys in her class bullying another she reacts promptly and properly.

This becomes the other main narrative strand of the film - in helping the lad out she meets a handsome social worker, Tim (Samuel Roukin), and they begin a relationship. Again, it would be easy to ramp up the drama here by having him turn out to be a philandering bastard, or for Zoe to get jealous. Instead, Zoe makes Tim feel welcome and after meeting a couple of times he and Poppy spend the night together (in a beautifully underplayed scene that manages to be both funny and touching) then make each other tea and chat about stuff the morning after. Like everyone else, he’s fallen in love with her.

All this is shot through with Leigh’s trademark improv-based dialogue, constantly finding humour and truth in the mundane. All the performances are excellent, but special praise must go to Hawkins. After winning the Silver Bear for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival, there’s been a lot of hype and interest in her, but it’s fully justified. She’s in almost every scene and is a constant delight, gorgeously funny and natural, the best mate/girlfriend/big sister you’ve always wanted. It’s the old cliché but sometimes you DO forget you’re watching a performance, because she inhabits the character so fully and makes her so true to life.

By comparison, Scott feels something of a cliché; racist, repressed and fundamentally very angry. He’s the only source of real conflict in the film and at times the message seems to be that anyone who isn’t as free-spirited as Poppy is just a screwed-up, buttoned-down reactionary. By Leigh’s usual high standards this seems a glib generalisation, especially when every other character is so well-rounded.

It could also be argued that the film lacks the dramatic thrust of Vera Drake, or the wider social observation of Secrets And Lies or High Hopes. Fundamentally, this is a pleasantly meandering character study. Poppy is the diametric opposite of David Thewlis’s Johnny, the misanthropic loner in Leigh’s masterpiece Naked, but she’s an equally brilliantly realised character and an equally dominating presence in the film.

Perhaps not in the very top rank of Leigh’s work, then, but certainly a cut above the average, a slice of London life that portrays neither an urban hell or a Richard Curtisesque dreamland but a city as vibrant, chaotic and fun as Poppy herself. See it and I guarantee you’ll emerge with a big smile on your face – unless, perhaps, you’re a member of the Driving Instructors’ Association.

Reviewed on: 15 Mar 2008
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Happy-Go-Lucky packshot
Poppy, a young primary school teacher living in Camden Town, starts taking driving lessons with an instructor who is her opposite in every respect.
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Read more Happy-Go-Lucky reviews:

Chris ****
Adam Micklethwaite ****

Director: Mike Leigh

Writer: Mike Leigh

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Kate O’Flynn, Samuel Roukin

Year: 2008

Runtime: 118 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

Festivals:

New York 2008

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