Few directors provide as much elation as Mike Leigh when he's at the top of his game. I'm not talking about the airhead happiness that often passes for exhilaration in the movies. The high spirits in Leigh's films do not discount the dangers of this world, and for this reason, their spiritedness is all the more valuable and hard-won. He's a starry-eyed realist.
The funny-sad "Happy-Go-Lucky" is not quite on a level with Leigh's best – which, for me, would be "Life is Sweet" and the Gilbert and Sullivan drama "Topsy-Turvy" – but it's a small, radiant gem in a movie season cluttered with rhinestones. You leave the theater feeling both clearheaded and buoyant.
Sally Hawkins, in a performance without a single false note, plays Poppy, a 30-year-old schoolteacher who shares a flat with a fellow instructor, the wisecracking Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), and loves to whiz through the streets of central London on her bicycle. When the bike is stolen, her first response is: "I didn't even have a chance to say goodbye." This is a typical Poppyism – comical and poig-nant all at once.
Instead of replacing the bike, she opts to take driving lessons. (The company's motto is "Good driving is no accident.") Her instructor, Scott (the marvelous Eddie Marsan), is her antithesis: a bitter introvert with a martinet's temperament. When he's not regaling Poppy with all manner of outrageous political conspiracy theories, he's nattering on about her inappropriate footwear, her high-heeled boots.
Scott seems harmless, but an edgy cynicism emerges during their driving sessions. He's both repelled by Poppy and, increasingly, smitten by her. He stalks her and then, when found out, denies it. Leigh leads us incrementally to the realization that Scott is not simply a figure of fun, that his hurts go very deep.
For Poppy, Scott at first is someone who needs rescuing – by her. She laughs good-naturedly at his aggravated gloominess. It takes her a long time to see him for all that he is and, because we so readily identify with her, it takes us just about as long. Leigh brings her, and us, into a fuller comprehension of unhappiness in this happy-go-lucky world.
Which is not to say that Poppy is defeated. When Zoe says to her, "You can't make everybody happy," Poppy's response is: "No harm in trying." It would have been easy for Leigh to portray Poppy as an uncomplicatedly daffy optimist, but she earns our respect, as well as our love, because she faces up to her own sweet temper and sees its limitations – and still perseveres.
There is a sequence about halfway through the movie where she walks alone through the moonlit city streets and makes her way to a deserted area where an unbalanced homeless men is babbling. At first I thought this scene was too discordant. By heedlessly approaching this potentially dangerous stranger and engaging him in conversation, Poppy's do-gooding comes across as foolish. When the film screened at the Toronto film festival, where I saw it, a number of women in the audience Q-and-A with Leigh afterward remarked that they would never dream of doing such a thing. But Leigh is making the point that Poppy is not all women – she's Poppy. And her foolishness is all of a piece with everything else about her, and integral to her benevolence. We all know that this scene with the homeless man could have ended very badly. But it doesn't.
Leigh's method of working is unique. Starting with a cast and usually no more than a whim of an idea, he gradually develops a story line through extended improvisations that often go on for months before solidifying into a screenplay. Not many performers can commit to the vast amount of time Leigh requires of them, and for this reason his films have been devoid of "name" actors with whom one would like to see him collaborate (Michael Caine or Emma Thompson, for example). But for those who can stick it out, the rewards are often the best acting of their careers.
In the case of Hawkins, who appeared in small roles in two earlier Leigh films ("All or Nothing" and "Vera Drake"), her performance is so freewheelingly immediate that – illusion of illusions – it looks as if it was never rehearsed at all, that it just happened in front of the camera. The same is true of the entire movie. The personal triumphs in "Happy-Go-Lucky" may be small-scale but its embrace is all-encompassing. It's a wonderfully humane movie. Grade: A (Rated R for language.)