As individuals, or indeed as a society, are we capable of seeing the glass half full? In these cynical, materialistic, intolerant times are we still capable of enjoying life, appreciating simple pleasures, being “happy”? That seems to be the question implicitly posed by Mike Leigh’s latest offering, which focuses on an irrepressible, free-spirited young woman, named Poppy (Sally Hawkins), and her interaction with a number of characters from across the social spectrum. Her impact upon and attitude towards those around her is very likely to make you smile, even laugh out loud, but what the director wants most is to make you think. Analysing a cross–section of diverse characters, Happy-Go-Lucky holds up a mirror to society’s obsession with that most elusive and unquantifiable of emotions - happiness.

The film’s charm offensive centres on the perpetually smiling Poppy (a virtuoso performance from Hawkins, who deservedly won a Best Actress Award at the Berlin Film Festival for her sparkling, larger-than-life portrayal) and her impact on those around her, including her flatmate (Alexis Zegerman), her sisters and especially her driving instructor, the angry, misanthropic Scott (Eddie Marsan), whose dangerously insular, bigoted behaviour and opinions are the antithesis of Poppy’s unconditional generosity and warmth. Although the two do not spend a great deal of screen time together, the relationship between them is central to the film, even more so than her burgeoning romance with social worker Tim (Samuel Roukin). The driving lessons and potent clash of personalities also provide the film’s funniest moments, as Scott’s aggressive, neurotic personality brings out the naughty schoolgirl in Poppy, who takes every opportunity to poke fun at his uptight cynicism and expose his bigoted misanthropy for what it is.

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Though the slightly contrived mismatched pairing of Scott and Poppy is something we might expect to find in a sitcom, the driving lesson scenes have an edge and a potential for drama which is what really makes the film work. It is through Scott’s character that we can truly appreciate Poppy, as it’s only when faced with her absolute antithesis that we can really see the difference between her unconditional warmth and the narrow minded bigotry which remains all too present in contemporary society.

However, one thing that does grate a little is the lack of any background to Poppy’s personality, or an analysis of what makes her tick. For a film so obviously centred on character in favour of plot, I find this something of an oversight. Leigh does provide numerous doubles for Poppy throughout the film, including the Flamenco teacher, whose bravura mask of confidence and self-control implodes so spectacularly in the middle of her lesson, and Poppy’s pregnant sister, whose veneer of contentedness hides a wealth of insecurities. We see enough of Poppy’s character to appreciate that her happiness is something much more genuine and lasting, but we’re never given any satisfying explanation of why she is different. There are tantalising glimpses of hidden depths behind the improvised witticisms and boundless optimism, particularly in her encounter with the tramp and her reaction and response to bullying at her primary school, but since we have no real history, then we have no way of contextualising these moments or evaluating their significance to her past. Another director might have chosen to focus upon how these events relate to Poppy on a more personal level, but Leigh seems more focused upon the situations themselves and upon the positive impact of her compassion.

For all that, the film never adopts a moralizing tone, nor does it pretend to offer any conclusive enlightenment. After all, Poppy’s happiness seems to reside in her ability to remain unconscious of it, to simply enjoy “being” rather than needing to wonder why. This is in marked contrast to many of those around her for whom happiness is elusive, precisely because they have a need to be constantly aware of it.

In the end, your enjoyment will hinge on your reaction to the “happy-go-lucky” heroine and your ability to accept her at face value. It is possible that you will find her a little too much, perhaps even annoyingly high spirited, but for all that it is impossible not to be impressed by her effervescent, vivacious personality and unerring ability to see the lighter side of life, an optimism and breadth of emotional generosity which perhaps we should all aspire to.

“You can’t make everyone happy,” Sally’s pragmatic flatmate points out, to which Poppy responds, “No harm in trying though, is there?”

Now that is a very full glass indeed!

Reviewed on: 21 Aug 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 ****1/2
Jeff Robson ****

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


New York 2008

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