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Happy-Go-Lucky (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 17, 2023




Starring Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Andrea Riseborough, Sinead Matthews, Kate O’Flynn, Sarah Niles, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Karina Fernandez, Stanley Townsend, Samuel Roukin, Caroline Martin, Oliver Maltman and Nonso Anozie.

Screenplay by Mike Leigh.

Directed by Mike Leigh.

Distributed by Miramax Films.  118 minutes.  Rated R.

Is it possible to remain completely, irrepressibly cheerful in a world which seems determined to knock you down whenever it can?

The latest film by eccentric British director Mike Leigh is a character study which explores just this question.

Poppy (a star-making and surprisingly nuanced performance by Sally Hawkins) is a London school teacher who is in the middle of this constant up cycle.  She smiles and laughs and quips and tries desperately to bring happiness to all around her.

This could be an annoying character trait – in fact if you met Poppy in passing chances are her eternal sunshine would get on your nerves – and yet through the two-hours of Happy-Go-Lucky we get to know the woman and see she is not insufferable, delusional nor insane, though she does occasionally dip a toe into all these ponds.

Her eternal cheer seems to be more of a defense mechanism.  If Poppy does not acknowledge the darkness, maybe she can keep it at bay.  However, through her interactions with people in her life – including a bitter driving teacher, a violent school student, her emotional pregnant younger sister and a slightly deranged homeless man – we come to see how much Poppy cares for people and how important it is to her to try to help people.

Like much of Leigh’s work, Happy-Go-Lucky does not have a traditional three-act story structure.  It is a loosely connected series of scenes which do not always push the plot forward but always illuminate the characters in surprising and intriguing ways.

This is also Leigh’s most light-hearted film in years.  It is not exactly a comedy – though it does have some laugh-out-loud moments – in fact it has some surprisingly dramatic turns.  However, Poppy’s world is one of color, light and resplendent cheer and Hawkins’ supernaturally strong performance (for an actor it’s much harder to play happy than sad) gives the film an essential and undeniable sense of hope and unrestrained goodness.

This is a true feel-good film.  Unlike Slumdog Millionaire, the more-hyped film by another respected Brit director, you get the feeling that the characters of Happy-Go-Lucky actually like life and care about other people.  However, because Happy-Go-Lucky is more subtly structured and doesn’t have a big cash payoff, this film has mostly flown underneath the radar – though Hawkins did get a strongly-deserved nomination for a Best Actress Oscar.

Towards the end of the film, Poppy’s roommate points out that it is impossible make everyone in the world happy.  True, Poppy concedes, but it can’t hurt to try.

In a world of cynicism run amok, Poppy’s absolute refusal to give up on her sunny disposition becomes strangely brave and rebellious.  Hard as it is to believe, the world may be better place with more of this kind of brave mutiny in the harsh light of hard reality.  Maybe belief in the essential goodness of life and mankind – despite all evidence to the contrary – is harder than becoming jaded.  After all, trying to spread happiness is an honorable pursuit, even if it might be essentially fruitless in the long run.

It can’t hurt to try.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved. Posted: March 14, 2009.

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