Happy Go Lucky

‘You can’t make everyone happy.’

‘No harm in trying, though, is there?’

I’ve never seen a Mike Leigh film but this ‘anti-miserabilist’ story of a relentlessly upbeat primary school teacher merits his reputation as the grand old man of British film. Lots of people pretend to be positive, sometimes out of a desire to suppress pain, or as a means of social control. But Happy Go Lucky’s Poppy is a genuinely good, outgoing woman dedicated to making everyone’s lives that little bit better. Whether she’s clubbing, breaking up a playground fight or attempting flamenco, she acts with warmth, humour and candid sensuality. Everyone pretends to be non-judgemental as well, but only Poppy would spend ten minutes chatting to a homeless person in the dark, and actually seem interested in his nonsensical replies.

The film put me in mind of this quote from Richard Curtis:

I really do believe that there is a tremendous amount of optimism, goodness and love in the world and that it is under-represented. But if you do feel it and experience it then you should write about it. The dark side is always dominant. What is the nastiest thing that has happened to me? What is the worst thing I can imagine happening to me? What were the worst three days of my life? Ah. I shall write about that. It is a sort of sentimental conspiracy about violence. You write a play about a soldier going AWOL and stabbing a single mother and they say it is a searing indictment of modern British society. It has never happened once in my entire life. Whereas you write a play about a guy falling in love with a girl which happens a million times a day in every corner of the world and it’s called blazingly unrealistic sentimental rubbish. It has always been that way. Nobody has really written anything intelligent about Shakespeare’s comedies. People prefer to write about tragedies because they can’t get to the bottom of happiness or comedy.

But Curtis’s films tend to irritate the intelligent audience because they concentrate on the lives of the rich and depict a impossibly shiny and compliant world. By contrast, the London of Happy Go Lucky is recognisably ours. It’s a London of graffitied tenements and underfunded schools. Poppy’s bike is stolen in the first few minutes, she puts her back out from trampolining, one of her pupils is being battered at home, she rents a flat with a longtime friend, her love life is nonexistent. Poppy isn’t blind or naive. She acknowledges the darkness but does not let it affect her.

Instead she appreciates the pleasures many take for granted: having a beer after work, getting wrecked with her friends, making bird hats for class. In one of the film’s best scenes, Poppy’s married and pregnant older sister nags the teacher about her single lifestyle: ‘You’re thirty… thirty-five is considered a high risk mother… when are you getting on the property ladder, when are you going to get a mortgage?’ It’s obvious to us that Poppy’s sister Helen is lashing out because she envies Poppy’s freedom, but it’s left to others to acknowledge the insecurity Helen feels about her own life choices.

The film’s centre is Poppy’s relationship with Scott, her driving instructor and a disturbed and disturbing man. Scott is everything Poppy is not: bitter, prejudiced, conspiratorial, pedantic, narrow-minded and sexually repressed. Leigh pins down Scott’s character in his very first scene, when the driving instructor refuses to shake Poppy’s hand. He provides the film’s darkness.

It’s a classic device to throw two antithetical people together and force them to get on, and you can’t get much more claustrophobic than the cramped hub of an automobile. In each succeeding lesson Scott deteriorates a little more, ranting about numerology and multiculturalism while hurling the car around at terrifying speeds. Most of the time, Poppy isn’t fazed by this. She follows his tangents. She teases him but doesn’t, in my view, lead him on. Leigh says on the DVD extra that Poppy just wants to help Scott rather than torment him.

By the end of the film, Poppy has changed a little. She’s realised a hard truth about the world – that some people cannot be saved. This makes her more reflective and subdued, as if something’s shifted inside her chest. But it’s obvious she still believes that we only get one life: best to make that life a positive experience, both for yourself and for others around you.

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One Response to “Happy Go Lucky”

  1. Cinema Paradiso Says:

    Great movie and director, we are just celebrating our 10th Anniversary so check out page on our website is entirely dedicated to Mike Leigh.

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