It seems unsporting to say anything even remotely negative about Happy-Go-Lucky (Miramax), the new Mike Leigh film that’s been blissing out audiences abroad since it opened in the United Kingdom last spring. After all, the movie is a pure ode to joy—something we haven’t seen, not just from Leigh but from any filmmaker in recent years. It’s the rare character study of someone who’s deeply and uncomplicatedly good. Not only that, but said character—an irrepressibly cheery primary-school teacher named Poppy Cross—is a wondrous creation, thoroughly uncloying and so deeply imagined by Leigh regular Sally Hawkins that you feel she must go on existing somewhere even after the movie’s over. The trouble is that the movie in which Poppy does, in fact, exist never quite rises to her level. The questions that Poppy poses by her irrepressibility—is it enough to find flashes of joy in a cruel and unjust world? how much compassion do we owe to our fellow human beings, even when those human beings treat us like crap?—remain not just unanswered (questions that big can’t and shouldn’t be answered) but largely unaddressed.
When we first meet Poppy, her bicycle has just been stolen from outside a London bookstore. Undaunted by this misfortune, Poppy signs up for driving classes with an instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), who’s a walking time bomb of sexual and racial hatred. Every second spent in the company of the giggly, chatty Poppy serves only to exacerbate Scott’s paranoia and rage: “You celebrate chaos!” he scolds her between Tourette’s-like repetitions of his pet mnemonic teaching aids: “Peep and creep! Check your mirrors! En-ra-ha!” The tightly wound Scott is the antimatter version of the free-spirited Poppy, and their scenes together thrum with humor and suspense.
These recurring driving lessons provide the only structure in an otherwise episodic plot. Poppy makes paper-bag bird masks with her pupils; goes out drinking and clubbing with her girlfriends, including her sister Suzy (Kate O’Flynn) and her flatmate, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman); and takes a memorably batty flamenco lesson with a fellow schoolteacher (Sylvestra Le Tousel). This loosey-goosey structure isn’t a problem in itself; Leigh is a masterful enough director to make each individual scene, especially one in which Poppy manages to connect deeply with an incoherent homeless man (Stanley Townsend), worth watching.
But each of these encounters—with the wigged-out driving instructor, the befuddled vagrant, or a bully in Poppy’s class who turns out to come from an abusive home—promises something that the movie never delivers. Again and again, Poppy is put in a position where she might have to confront some serious opposition to her sunshiney worldview, and every time, the confrontation is defused before it has a chance to begin. This is especially disappointing in the story line about the abused boy, who entirely disappears from the film after Poppy begins an affair with his social worker (Samuel Roukin). What happened to that kid? And if we’re not supposed to care what happened to him, why should we be moved that Poppy does? It’s not that I want to see Poppy’s cheerful enthusiasm dashed against the rocks; it’s just that for a moral fable like this to work, the protagonist’s goodness needs to be tested against the possibility of real evil or violence.
It’s entirely possible that I’m missing something, and that Happy-Go-Lucky really is, as many claim, an unblemished gem. It’s certainly tempting to let any doubts be conquered by the heroine’s steamroller of a personality. Hawkins and Leigh created the character of Poppy together during Leigh’s signature monthslong rehearsal process (which they discuss at length in this clip from a recent Q-and-A session on the film). Given Leigh’s reputation for writing parts for querulous cranks, the two of them must have had great fun crafting the childlike and guileless Poppy from the ground up: She stuffs her bra with shrink-wrapped chicken cutlets! She wears earrings shaped like baby chicks! She jumps on a trampoline after work every day! Poppy Cross, in her chirpy, faintly grating way, is an inspiration; like Jeff Bridges’ Dude in The Big Lebowski, she may be one of those characters whose sheer lovability outstrips and outlives the film in which she appears. Happy-Go-Lucky may come and go, but Poppy abides.