Happy Go Lucky – out now

Sally Hawkins is delightful as 30-year-old Poppy, a primary school teacher living in London with an attitude as sunny as the Costa del Sol. She is dippy, bubbly and optimistic, with a laugh which is at times charming, at times irritating. She is so relentlessly cheery that we spend the first half of the film in suspense – surely her chirpiness can’t last for long… surely that smile will be wiped off her face by tragedy, or some secret obsession (for a comparison, see review on He loves me… he loves me not? After all, director Mark Leigh’s last film, Vera Drake, was harrowingly dark, and he is renowned for the bittersweet melancholy that pervades his work.

Not so Poppy. Happy-Go-Lucky is a film about a genuinely happy person. It plays with and then dismisses our obsession with irony and reveals that there is indeed a brighter side to life. The title itself challenges our easy assumption that pessimism equates to realism. Indeed, after the film’s glorious reception at the Berlin Film Festival (Sally Hawkins won a Silver bear for best actress and Mike Leigh was nominated for a Golden Bear) Leigh explained: “It’s important to reject the growing fashion to be miserabilist, the growing fashion to be pessimistic and gloomy because the world is in a bad way. Everywhere there are people on the ground getting on with it and being positive.”

Much like Leigh’s other work, Happy-Go-Lucky is more of a character study than a linear narrative. We encounter Poppy in a number of situations – she cycles to work every day but remains unflustered when her bike gets stolen; she tries, rather tactlessly, to cheer up a grouchy bookshop owner (“Having a bad day? Not till I showed up, eh?”); she loves her job as a primary school teacher, making bird masks out of paper bags and entertaining her class with flapping and chirping.

Poppy also faces some challenging situations, which she handles with humour and compassion, which can spill over into a rather eerie calmness. She helps a boy who is being bullied at school, befriends a tramp and counters the prodding at her carefree life that comes from her settled and pregnant sister with a beguiling light-heartedness: “My five year plan? What, like Stalin?”.

The most interesting interaction of characters comes when Poppy enrols for driving lessons with racist and resentful instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan). He constantly berates her for her lack of concentration and orderliness (“You celebrate chaos!”) whilst at the same time developing a strange obsession with the cheerful, hippified Poppy.

Leigh has made an infectiously joyous, life-affirming, beautiful film. In an era when films are saturated with pain and irony, this is a breath of freah air. You come away feeling happy and liberated, but with plenty of questions in your mind: “Why are we so contented with cynicism? Why do we expect good acts to be driven by an ulterior motive?”. This should be compulsory viewing for all us skeptical Brits.

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