Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald
Think of Happy-Go-Lucky, the latest work by British filmmaker Mike Leigh, as the anti-Vera Drake. That film, which earned an Oscar nomination for Imelda Staunton, used a dark, repressive, gloomy London as backdrop for a story about a backstreet abortionist in the 1950s.
By contrast, the London of Happy-Go-Lucky is a Day-Glo wonderland, with all its sunshine supplied by the relentlessly upbeat Poppy Cross (the remarkable Sally Hawkins, awash in clanking bracelets and swaddled in zany thrift-store wear). A 30-year-old primary-school teacher who shares a flat with her best mate (Alexis Zegerman), Poppy is that rare individual who can find joy in absolutely everything in her simple life, whether it’s making bird masks out of paper bags with her students, getting tipsy and dancing all night at the clubs with her friends or even taking driving lessons from her racist, pathologically cranky instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan).
Everything makes Poppy laugh, and such optimism can be hard to bear for the cynical, the tired, the troubled or the passionate. At times Poppy’s constant, sunny joking even begins to grate on the audience. But the beauty of the film — which carries no strong narrative thrust, adding up to only a couple of chapters of day-to-day life as she bounces happily through it — is that Leigh (Secrets & Lies) always provides her with an affectionate, generous benefit of the doubt. She’s not dim-witted or shallow, nor is she blind to the world’s ugly side. When a bully in her classroom starts punching other kids, she gently but firmly deals with the situation. She understands too well the animosity between her younger sisters (one a student; one married, smug and pregnant) and negotiates it with patience and solid good humor. She even grows aware that Scott’s mounting aggression could explode in a dangerous way.
Trained as we are in the cynicism of movies (and, for that matter, of life), we wait for things to turn sour for Poppy, for her smile to wilt and her happiness to crumble. But Leigh, who has written some of the best roles for women in films over the past 15 years, as well as the Gilbert and Sullivan gem Topsy Turvy, stands firm. Happy-Go-Lucky may be merely his vision of what he wishes the world could be, but even so, it’s a powerful argument for optimism.
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman.
Director/screenwriter: Mike Leigh.
Producers: Simon Channing Williams.
A Miramax release. Running time: 110 minutes. Language. Playing at: In Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Sunrise; in Palm Beach: Shadowood.