Sally Hawkins is a real delight in Mike Leigh’s new film as Poppy, a 30-year-old Londoner with a bubbly nature and an ever-present laugh that teeters between lovable and annoying. Hawkins’ performance, and Leigh’s harnessing of it, is a tease: when we first see Poppy, cycling through the West End and joking with a grumpy bookshop assistant before joining her friends for a late-night drunken session, we don’t know what to make of her. She’s loud, joyful and indulges in terrible jokes; surely there’s something wrong with her?
The trick that Leigh and Hawkins finally pull off so cleverly by the end of 'Happy-Go-Lucky’ is that we’re entirely in cahoots with her. Poppy is a mirror to us all: if we find her blind optimism and sunny nature hard to swallow, perhaps there’s something wrong with us instead? By then, too, we know that Poppy is not the blinkered soul we may first think: she is compassionate, perceptive and harbours her own sadnesses like the rest of us.
Leigh always finds plot in character, and ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ is more of a portrait than a story; a film that’s built around one performance. He is less concerned here, unlike, say, ‘Secrets & Lies’ and ‘Vera Drake’, with following a driving narrative than with minutely observing Poppy through her relationships with others, whether it’s the kids she teaches at her primary school, her repressed driving instructor (Eddie Marsan, excellently playing a heavy-duty bag of hang-ups), her close friend and flatmate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) or her older, more settled colleague Heather (Sylvestra Le Touzel), whom she joins at flamenco lessons after work. In that sense, it’s comparable to ‘Naked’.
It’s a study in sadness versus happiness, a study in teachers and the taught, a study in how we carry with us everyday the burdens of what we have and haven’t learned. You know you’re watching something both delightfully light-footed and acutely meaningful when Leigh moves so nimbly between scenes at Poppy’s school, her flamenco class and her driving lessons. There’s also a wonderfully moving scene, darker and more poetic in tone, when Poppy encounters a tramp late at night. It’s a funny film – a surprise perhaps after ‘Vera Drake’ – and, crucially, it aches with truth.