Reviewed by: Chris

What do we mean by British values? Role models foisted on us by the political elite. A family-values BBC. Gordon Brown talking of our respect for justice and fair play seem at odds with his political agenda - seen by some as increasingly encroaching on basic human rights. The Scots and the Welsh have vibrant traditions. Whereas England yearns for identity. So where is the notion of ‘Britishness’?

I admit I sometimes feel ashamed of being 'British' when foreign policy taints our image abroad. Yet when I travel in London and the rest of the UK, comparing it to the progress in developed and developing countries around the world, I also feel a faint tinge of pride. Racism is still present in the UK. But not as bad as many places.

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Happy-Go-Lucky is no carefree meander through the joys of being British. Neither is it a film that will make everyone smile (as director Mike Leigh hopes). Happy-Go-Lucky is a character study. The film can be taken as very light entertainment – Eastenders with a happy face. Or we could suggest it might hold up a mirror - illustrating more constructive personas than any soap opera.

But here was my initial reaction:

Poppy Cross is like Catherine Tate without funny. An irritating stranger that might come up to me in the street and tell me to ‘smile’. She witters aimlessly, refuses to engage in serious conversation. She is like the born-again cancer patient determined to extol their remaining days with a live-life-to-the-full proselytising grin. She has the self-righteous radiance of the newly converted. The Prozac-like cheeriness of Little Miss Sunshine’s dysfunctional happiness-guru, teaching success even though a complete failure. Any character criticising her is quickly demonised by the script. She indeed has, as flatmate Zoe jokes, a “strong bullshit line” in her palm. This is posh playwright/director Mike Leigh once again trying to show he understands the working class, and this time failing as miserably as Tony Blair eating beefburgers. Pulp singing Common People in the background doesn’t convince. There is negligible plot development beyond the trite interactions of Poppy with others. The main dramatic tension is wondering when the final credits will her out of her bangle-jangling misery.

But the more I absorbed the film, the more I answered my own criticisms. I watched it again. Many more people were laughing than at the preview. Myself included.

For all their ebullience and garish clothing, Poppy (Sally Hawkins) and her friends are archetypes more than regular characters. Her happiness is indefatigable. Her only sadness is that others aren’t as happy as she. Every other player is more recognisable (if less inspiring). Her youngest sister (Suzy) is three weeks away from her law exams. Her incisive humour ‘tells it like it is’ - but such sharp wit is destructive. The middle sister (Helen) is pregnant, successfully married and on the property ladder, yet vulnerable when others don’t buy into her vision of happiness.

Poppy’s colleagues at the Primary School where she works seem to have colourless lives compared to Poppy. Her headmaster (Heather) has a predictable balance between home and work life, plus a Tuesday evening flamenco class. Tash, a teacher swamped by family demands, sees the glass half-full and struggles to keep up with the light pub banter.

When Poppy's bike is stolen (it must have "flown the nest," she says), she is confronted with more difficult oddballs. A racist driving teacher (Scott) and a scary-looking tramp she talks to on the way home. We might have warmed to seeing how she interacts with children under her care, but more threatening situations show a different maturity. Many superficially ‘happy’ people soon crack under any sort of pressure. They expect non-converts to ‘accept Jesus’. Poor people to ‘get a job’. Their happiness is usually predicated on a particular lifestyle and shared only with similar subscribers. Poppy, on the other hand, welcomes diversity. She cheerfully accepts that she can’t ‘make everyone happy’.

Is she unbelievable? Not really. For all her lightness, she has seen the world. Her gap year embraced Australia, Vietnam, Bali and Australia, plus a six-month teaching stint in Thailand. She knows she doesn’t know everything (“What am I doing?” she asks herself, befriending the violent homeless man). But she has a bravery born of knowledge of human nature and a comfortable friendship with her own compassionate disposition. “Do you know what I mean?” asks the derelict after a stream of meaningless stuttering (made even more incomprehensible by his obvious drunkenness or mental disorder). “Yeah. I do,” says Poppy. Sincerely. The expression in her eyes conveys a depth that is beyond the communication of words. It is one of the best moments in the film.

In a world where there is less space to share by ever-increasing populations, the tolerance and human kindness exhibited by Poppy is exemplary. And deserves to make Happy-Go-Lucky one of the most important British films of the year.

Cinematographer Dick Pope provides some glorious visual treats. Poppy on a trampoline or on display for an osteopath. Or an idyllic multiple hedgerow for her self-contemplation.

“It’s not easy being an adult,” ruminate Poppy and her flatmate Zoe as they look at life from the middle of a lake. But her seemingly childlike attitude is a lot easier than the approach taken by other people in her life. “It’s not easy being you, is it?” she says to her almost psychopathic driving instructor as he airs his frustrations. She must take driving ‘seriously.’ But Poppy is seriously happy. Her tolerance almost makes me proud to be British.

One thing did worry me though. Her driving instructor berates her for wearing heels, which she refuses to replace with ‘sensible’ driving shoes. I enquired of some female friends if this was indeed dangerous. Apparently it is. You can ruin the back of a good pair of heels driving in them .

Reviewed on: 23 Apr 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:

Adam Micklethwaite ****
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


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