Monday, April 21, 2008

Happy-Go-Lucky (15)

Written and directed by Mike Leigh
Screening at FACT from 18th April 2008

As someone who can't stand anything more frivolous than the news or Grumpy Old whoever it is this week, perhaps I'm not the best person to write about such a chirpy character as Poppy (Sally Hawkins). But then, maybe that makes me perfect to do it. You see, it isn't about whether the glass is half full or half empty; it's about filling the damned drink receptacle. And then emptying it.

The woman in question is a primary school teacher, and despite the rigours of the national curriculum, SATs and league tables, takes a great joy in her work (perhaps because none of those things seem to exist in the Happy-Go-Lucky universe). Her personal life is similarly carefree; she has a very close friendship with her flatmate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), and her sister is pregnant with her first child. When Poppy's bike gets stolen, she doesn't get upset, she merely regrets - for a fleeting moment - not getting to "say goodbye", and arranges some driving lessons.

It is this which puts her in contact with straitlaced instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan), whose worldview couldn't be more different to that of his breezy protegee. Lonely, angry and paranoid, he clutches at religion like a drowning person grasping the air, and uses obscure demonical references as memory aids. But even this doesn't particularly trouble Poppy, she makes a joke out of his "dark" mutterings, and tells him to "Cheer up, it might never happen". Clearly, for Scott, it already has.

Entrenched, systematic problems exist in our society - like the homelessness Poppy briefly encounters - which have causes and effects. Isolated individuals, whether they smile or frown, joke or moan, cannot change these structures. In the film's final scene, Poppy tells Zoe that people "make their own luck". While of course it is true that hard work is sometimes rewarded, this brand of kooky self-help individualism could never be a solution for most people, or even for anyone in the long term, once they get mugged by reality. Does Leigh seriously mean to tell us the homeless man - and by extension all homeless people - is/are just lazy? Or too down in the mouth?

I usually don't have this trouble with Mike Leigh stuff. Normally his films - falling within that genre dubbed 'social realism' - have at least attempted to portray the struggles of working class life. So yes, that often means a lot of sadness and messed-up people, but you can only begin to overcome problems if you acknowledge their existence. His 1950s backstreet abortionist Vera Drake (2004) faced many obstacles, and did her best for people, though she sometimes cried. There's nothing wrong with that, but there's something terribly wrong with her 2008 equivalent: she's too happy-go-lucky.
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