Mike Leigh’s films tend to be so inside a single life that it can be difficult sussing out the point of it all. The characters have unexplained or unnecessary connections, and much of the time it is as though Leigh is taking directly from the people he knows with no intent of making the story universal.
This wasn’t true of Vera Drake, a period drama with a point, but it is certainly true of his latest, Happy-Go-Lucky. The characters have unexplained relationships and seem to drift in and out; you might as well be sitting on your porch and watching your neighbor. That is, if your neighbor happened to live somewhere in England amidst the working class.
The film revolves around a perky schoolteacher named Poppy, played seamlessly by Sally Hawkins, and her daily exploits. Poppy is a horribly cheery person, you know, the kind you can’t bring down no matter how hard you try? The kind who doesn’t let world events like poverty and war bum them out? For we miserable folks, happy people are annoying. This is bound to make Sally Hawkins and her Poppy so gracing that many people might not make it all the way through the film.
But if you can get beyond the annoying parts, you might find a buried treasure inside. We all live with the quest for happiness every day of our lives. But our happiness is conditional, isn’t it? If we meet our soulmates, if we get our dream job, if we have the kid or the kids, the right car, the cool PDA, if we travel the world, if we rebuild our kitchen – THEN we’ll be happy. But what if happiness wasn’t conditional? What if you could simply be happy?
You’d be mighty annoying. Not only that, you would invite people to mistreat you, project things upon you, and lecture you about the things you’re supposed to want. Maybe the ugly truth is that we don’t want happiness, not really. We want and prefer misery. At least then our life choices sort of make sense to the outside world: we’re all miserable and we like it that way.
Sally Hawkins is an interesting actress. Part Holly GoLightly, part Patti Smith, and part Annie Hall, she breezes in and out of her space effortlessly, as if a high wind could blow her over. She is a butterfly in almost every sense except the one that knows its purpose, unless its purpose is truly to be there to make human beings feel good. And perhaps that is Poppy’s problem; no one is willing to accept the role she’s taken on. Somehow it seems inhumane to do so.
Happy-Go-Lucky isn’t a movie that I want to see again simply because an unrelentingly cheery person is exhausting to be around. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an admirable piece of work, written and directed by Mike Leigh, someone who remains curious about the motivations of we flighty and confusing people.