It’s quite unexpected for a Mike Leigh film to have a permanently happy, unswervingly upbeat character at the heart it. Yet that’s just what he’s presented with Happy-Go-Lucky, a film that centres on Sally Hawkins’ loud, upbeat and initially extremely irritating Poppy.
Poppy is a primary school teacher, who we’re introduced to over the credits as she gleefully rides her bike around the streets of London. When said bike is nicked, the key concern she presents is not being able to say goodbye to it, rather than showing any kind of real anger. And, for the first part of the film, she carries on in this vein, with the character being as grating as she is intriguing.
But then she takes driving lessons, which is where Eddie Marsan’s Scott comes in. Scott is the foil of Poppy, an equally relentlessly unhappy man, who doesn’t easily take to her ribbing and fooling around. Over the course of the film, it’s the lessons that these two take part in, all the while cramped into a small car, that form the spine of the film. Leigh describes this environment in one of the extra features as a pressure cooker, and that proves to be the case, with the edgy, nervous conversation benefiting from taking place in such close quarters. It doesn’t take long before you realise that the two supposed polar opposites have more in common than you originally think.
But then that’s the trick to the film, and something that Leigh has proven strong at throughout his career. And as it progresses, Poppy becomes a much more rounded character, never losing her chirpy nature, but with plenty going on under the surface. The actress behind her, Sally Hawkins, is quite brilliant, pulling off a difficult role with some skill. The same too for Eddie Marsan, who we previously saw in Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake. Scott is a troubled character, and one that Marsan injects with insecurity and menace.
In spite of its strengths, however, Happy-Go-Lucky isn’t premium Mike Leigh. Yet the man has set himself quite a high watermark with the likes of Secrets and Lies and Naked, and Happy-Go-Lucky doesn’t come too close to either of those. Think of it more along the lines of All Or Nothing than any of his masterpieces, and you’ll be just about right. Still, Leigh is a rarity, a British director who consistently delivers, and while Happy-Go-Lucky is mid-range fodder from him, it’s still worth seeking out.
Extras-wise, the package tantalises but never fully delivers. Leigh’s method of working, where the actors are giving the very basics, and then flesh out their characters in great detail, is well known. But wouldn’t it be great to go behind the scenes of that process, and really see it in action? Sadly, it doesn’t happen here, although there’s the best part of half an hour of interviews that lines up a series of talking heads – including Leigh and Hawkins – who discuss the process in some detail. It’s a gesture, but it’s not entirely what we wanted.
The other extra feature is a brief look at filming in a car, and this is actually quite interesting. The two actors just drove around London while the camera was rolling on them, and from a technical standpoint, it’s interesting to see the vehicle loaded up with all the equipment to make that happen. It’s under five minutes, though, and there is a little crossover with the other interviews from the longer featurettes.
At best, then, Happy-Go-Lucky is a tantalising competent release of a fine film. But there’s still, hopefully, a more interesting special edition of a Mike Leigh film to come. Thus far, the Criterion Collection edition of Naked is about as close as we’ve seen.
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