Director Mike Leigh’s films have almost always been more about the characters than the plot and Happy-Go-Lucky is no exception. More character sketch than anything else, Happy-Go-Lucky paints the portrait of Poppy, a middle class British woman who seemingly has not a care in the world.
The film follows not so much of a plot but a series of incidents as we follow Poppy (Sally Hawkins) from flamenco dancing lessons to work to visiting her pregnant sister to taking driving lessons from an instructor who could use some anger management classes (Eddie Marsen, in a performance that almost rivals Hawkins here). Although she does begin to date and has to deal with some mixed signals received by her driving instructor, these two story threads develop naturally, without the usual visible framework of typical Hollywood screenplay three act structure.
Poppy is one whom those with a wide vocabulary might refer to as a flibbertigibbet. Those with a lesser command of the English language would just call her flighty. Both words, though, might be doing her a disservice. True, she feels the need to have a quip in response to everything said to her and she constantly giggles as if being tickled by life itself. But she has defined happiness for herself on her own terms, not on meeting the expectations of others. Sharing an apartment with her long time friend Zoe (Alexia Zegerman), she goes about her life relatively responsibility free. An elementary school teacher by day, she looks towards the weekend and going clubbing with her friends. Although her younger sister is married and expecting her first baby, Poppy is unperturbed over her single status. Conversations about other people often end with a sigh and her intoning, “Bless him/her.”
Leigh’s presentation of Poppy is never judgmental. Her choices are never presented in a negative nor is her lifestyle shown to be superior to any of her friends or family. And with the exception of perhaps having a little more insight as to how people perceive her, she doesn’t change much through the course of the film. This neutral portrayal allows the audience to better approach the character and get ensnared in her and her world.
The key to this approach’s success if the astounding, pitch perfect work of Hawkins. She walks a narrow tightrope where one misstep would destroy the portrait Leigh is trying to present. Played too subtly and it would be too hard to engage in Poppy as a character. If done too broadly, Poppy would be nothing more than an annoying supporting character on a particularly bad sitcom. But Hawkins manages to shade her with just the right amount of feeling and heart. This shading helps to add greater depth to sequences like Poppy’s late night encounter with a mentally unbalance homeless man or when she is dealing with an emotionally troubled student. It is an incredible performance, as it calls for energy without ever descending into a lot of attention-calling Hollywood histrionics. From our first glimpse of her, riding a bike through London streets, to the film’s final fade to black, Hawkins simply radiates in what is one of the must-see performances of the year, bless her.