Gorblimey guv’nor, it’s only Mike Leigh’s latest! Fresh from making the poignant and much-needed Vera Drake, Mr Improv now tells the giddy, joyous tale of a very different female working-class heroine: Poppy (formerly and formally Pauline, played by Hawkins), a 30-year-old London primary school teacher, friend to the disenfranchised, and modern-day angel with a dirty laugh. She’s a woman so lighthearted and carefree, you half-suspect she’s mainlining MDMA out of shot, as not even troubled bullies or scary tramps who spout more nonsense than Abu Hamza can faze her. Her new driving instructor, Scott (Marsan), is more trying, as his racist conspiracy theories, homophobia and misogyny make Hitler look misunderstood, but Poppy does her best to counter his prejudiced rants with wit and charm.

And that’s the film, really. It follows a life as real as fiction can ever be, where there are few plot twists or narrative devices, merely fleeting moments of happiness and pain. Poppy meets a kindhearted man, and there’s no drama or tragedy; she visits her pregnant but dissatisfied sister, and has a normal family altercation. She revels in trampolining, flamenco and making bird masks for the kids in her class, without any fracas or follow-up. Even her relationship with the volatile Scott builds in a lifelike and unstructured way.

The latter provides the only ill-considered moment of the film: when Scott’s frustrations spill over physically and verbally at Poppy, she refuses to report him to the police, chirping: “That’s not gonna help him, is it?” No, but it might help the next poor woman he assaults. Given Leigh’s pro-female record and his depiction of Poppy as a role model for young women, it’s a disappointing aberration. Still, that’s the only drop of salt in 118 minutes of sweetness, which stay with you long after Poppy’s catchy laugh has faded. If you’re feeling low, empty or cynical, Happy-Go-Lucky will lighten your heart like nothing since Amélie.
There are some people who grace the Earth with glorious eccentricity, talking to strangers in shops, seemingly awkward in their confidence that everyone has the ability to get along, or share some common ground. People who talk to an offendingly unsecure fence from which her bicycle’s been nicked; who lull their mouth open a bit too frequently for one to think they retain all their marbles intact. This movie is about one of those people. Directed and written by Mike Leigh, we follow 31-year-old Londoner Poppy, played painstakingly affectionately by Hawkins, as she slaloms the ups and downs of a single life living and working in the city, in the close comfort of her lifelong friend and flatmate Zoe (Zegerman), her friends, and siblings.

Working as an enthusiastic and ever compassionate primary school teacher, the viewer is invited into a snippet of Poppy’s life, as she learns to drive, and struggles with her elder sisters distain of Poppy’s security in an unsecure life. As quick as one can be to judge such an off-the-wall, ditsy and slightly annoying character, we learn there is so much more to this woman than meets the eye. Her east-end accent misleadingly hides her university education, her clothes and demeanour blanketing her worthy profession, and her apparent naivety gives way to a tolerance and understanding to all warps of life, including her bigoted, bad tempered driving instructor Scott, executed marvellously by Marsan. Scott, constantly infuriated with Poppy’s love of wearing her impossibly high-heeled boots during lessons, wobbles on the verge of sanity, as he struggles to control his hate for anything which dares reside outside his immediate control. His weird and wonderful driving techniques are presented in an arrogant and aggressive manner, which only serve to amuse and charm Poppy into keeping him on as her instructor. Meanwhile at school, tall attractive social care worker Tim helps her deal with a spot of bullying and adds the flash of romance to Poppy’s life that one feels she wasn’t altogether missing in the first place.

As ever, Leigh presents us with unadulterated gritty real life — hideous yet beautiful, crafted on the streets of modern day London. The character development of Poppy is exquisitely unravelled, allowing the viewer to fall deeply in love with not only her soft kind-heartedness, but her raw human flaws, which only makes her insanity seem all the more sane. My only criticism would be its giddy 2-hour length, and perhaps its inability to translate such an intimate story on the big screen. Probably best served with a bottle of red wine and a Chinese takeout on the sofa, this movie is as intoxicating as it is heart-warming. A magnificently observed documentary of modern day city-life resting better with those who possess a sense of humour and flourish in a world which is out of control.

Official Site
Happy-Go-Lucky at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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