Thanks to the Ottawa Public Library I've finally seen the Mike Leigh movie, Happy Go Lucky, released in 2008. Better late than never.
The two main roles are played by Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsen, who were in Leigh's film Vera Drake,2004. Sally Hawkins starred in the more recent, Made in Dagenham. Happy Go Lucky, set in London in the recent past, centres on a pretty young woman named Poppy who dresses like Carrie Bradshaw and friends in the early episodes of Sex in the City. At first, Poppy seems charmingly flaky but unfocused. In an early scene she wastes her time trying to charm a sullen book store clerk. Next we see her out dancing at a club with her roommate, younger sister and two other girls, and continuing the party at her flat. In the next scenes, when I saw her and her roommate making brown paper bags into chicken masks, I was reminded of the crafts I used to do in my teaching years long ago, and sure enough, Poppy and Zoe are elementary school teachers preparing an art lesson. While school teachers are generally overworked, under-respected and underpaid, their work is highly important to society and requires sensitivity and responsibility.
Poppy is just the kind of colourful, upbeat teacher that young children like. Early on, her jokes and friendliness brighten up a glum colleague who has been nagged by rude relatives about her single status. As in Another Year, Leigh's characters fall into two groups - cheerful people who shrug off adversity and make the most of life, and troubled ones who range from the grumpy to the mentally ill. The happy characters include Poppy, her roommate Zoe, her school principal and the social worker who is consulted about an angry little boy. The elementary school seems a happy, well-run, non-hierarchical environment; the headmistress invites Poppy to her flamenco class and they go out for a drink afterwards, and both teachers and social worker are gentle and respectful in drawing out the troubled child.
The troubled people, in descending order, are the bookstore clerk, Poppy's youngest sister, the flamenco instructor (who has a melt-down), Poppy's pregnant married sister, the child, Poppy's driving instructor, and a psychotic tramp which Poppy meets while walking home and with whom she establishes a rapport.
Poppy is always ready to defuse a situation or ease tension with a joke. After a meal, Poppy's her pregnant sister demands of the other women, all single and unattached, "Doesn't my having a baby make you feel broody?" They politely say no. She persists, asking Poppy, "Wouldn't you like a baby?" Poppy replies,"No thanks, I just had a kebab."
Poppy tries to joke with Scott, her driving instructor, but her cheery banter only antagonizes him. He sets the tone on first meeting her when he refuses to shake her hand, and scowls at the remarks that are part of her patter, like: "Here we go, gigolo." Scott, who is rigid in his approach to instruction, eventually shows himself to be a racist and a conspiracy theorist. He cries, "Lock your doors!" when two black teens ride by on bicycles, and shouts at another driver, "You're not driving a camel!"
"It's not easy being you, is it?" Poppy says.
Rather than spoil the climax, I'll simply say that we see Poppy at her most assertive, and realize that she is effective in a crisis. Though the ending is less than a feel-good one, the final lines suggest that Poppy's warm-hearted ways are appreciated by someone special.
Mike Leigh encourages improvisation and spontaneity in his actors, and works individually with them to develop the characters they are playing, creating each character's back story. It's like the work a novelist does on her own in creating characters. Eventually each actor knows his or her character inside out. When developing the character Scott, Eddie Marsen believed he was making a serious movie about a troubled man. To his surprise, and eventual delight, he was put together with Sally's Poppy and their interaction makes sparks fly in this film, a thoughtful comedy.