Saturday, December 20, 2008

Review: "Happy-Go-Lucky"




"Happy-Go-Lucky"

* * *

D: Mike Leigh
W: Mike Leigh
S: Sally Hawkins

Mike Leigh turns his sensitive camera in for this intimate character study of North London schoolteacher Poppy, who does her best to keep an upbeat and cheerful outlook on life.  She's played to perfection by Sally Hawkins, who does her best to make Poppy's sensibilities seem like lived-in qualities without going headlong into quirks.

With a broad smile, fast gesticulations, and a manic sense of humor uniquely her own, Hawkins is sublimely funny, always seeming out of place but doing her best to spread cheer to others, often with grating, awkward, and relentlessly amusing results.  The film is essentially plotless, moving steadily through episodes in Poppy's life with relative breeze.  Leigh alternately examines her family life, her struggle to obtain a driving license, her job as a teacher, dancing lessons, all with a kind of simplistic disdain that shows life itself as relatively uneventful - it is how we approach it that makes the difference.

On the surface, Leigh's film doesn't seem to be making very large artistic statements.  Many of the scenes unfold in wide sequence shots, with the camera being more a passive surveyor than an active motivator.  As such, it lets each performer in the ensemble develop their own cadences and responses, giving most sequences a realistic and improvised feel.  Leigh's writing is strong, as very few moments feel forced or calculated, and the sheer drive of the film comes out of this exact lack of narrative propulsion.

As funny, light-hearted, and smile-inducing as "Happy-Go-Lucky" is, Leigh ultimately gives his strength added emotional boost in its final minutes, threatening to strip Poppy of her joy through simple dissections and turns of character.  Hawkins delves headfirst into the challenge, hinting at a tragedy in characterization before turning the film ultimately back onto its amusing track.

The film asks: can we really be optimistic in a world that is so cynical, can we be romantic and care-free in a world with so much pressure and stress?  At times it seems almost impossible, and we almost wait for the moment Poppy will break down.  Leave it to Sally Hawkins to take this entire complex range on her fully capable shoulders; hers is among the most tender and revealing female performances of the year, and certainly one of the most unmistakably genuine.

The film moves rather slow at times, asking us to surrender ourselves to Poppy's tempo.  Doing so gives the most rewards, even at the film's more tedious and plodding moments.  It may occasionally delve into repetition, but it all feels handled with professionalism and originality.

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