Happy Go Lucky (2008)

Dir. Mike Leigh
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman,

I recommend this to Penny, Kevin, Chris, Mitchell and Grace. I would cautiously recommend this to everyone else. I think I preferred Rachel Getting Married, but this would make my top five films of 2008. Both films are the type of good independent films you’d find at the old arthouse. If that appeals to you, go see them.

Mike Leigh is also a very good director, and deserves more attention–especially by grown-up film fans. Larri didn’t care for this film (4/10), and I’ll go into those reasons later. (Others may have a similar reaction.) One other thing. This is playing at Kahala, and it’s worth seeing in the theater (because it’s a good film), but the film won’t lose much if you see it on the small screen. Also, the British accents (Cockney?) is rather thick and hard to understand, so subtitles would be a nice.

The film is mainly a character study of Poppy (Hawkins), a single, thirty-something teacher. Poppy lives with her good friend Zoe (Zegerman). But let me stop my plot description there because Leigh seems to use the events that occur in the film–Poppy’s interaction with her sisters and more importantly, Scott (Marsan), a driving instructor–mainly to reveal Poppy’s character and her life. Right off the bat, Poppy’s excessive cheerfulness is evident, especially when things happen to challenge this positive demeanor. She’s a Polyanna. I wasn’t surprised to hear Larrilynn whisper, “She’s annoying.” Indeed, I was a little surprised that I tolerated and even liked her. I’ll go into those reasons in the next section. Before I do, let me say something about Leigh’s approach to directing, which I think will appeal to some of you. From what I understand, Leigh works individually with the actors to develop the characters. Then when he thinks he’s got the character at the proper development, he gets the actors together to improvise. This is where Leigh writes the script. It’s a cool approach and based on the films I’ve seen, the work pays off by creating realistic. complex characters.

There’s an underlying artistic challenge that Leigh seems to take on in this film: take a really optimistic person (almost unrealistically so) and let her face hardship and evil in the world–and do this in a realistic way, creating a complex and believable character. I liked that underlying premise of the film, and that’s what partly made the character tolerable. The other reason is that she’s hilarious, specifically in the delivery of rapid fire dialogue, especially with her roommate Zoe and Scott. These scenes were funny, and they reminded me of the American screwball comedies of the 30s (except they weren’t as hard to understand). I do have a slight criticism with the acting, specifically with Hawkins and Marsan; at times their acting seems so over top the characters became cartoonish, especially Marsan. I wish he restrained himself a little more. Nevertheless, Hawkins still manages to make her character believable and likable. For me, the fact that her optimism didn’t depend on a lack of awareness made her character tolerable, even likable. Poppy is not oblivious to pain or evil in the world. Neither is she an insensitive person; just the opposite in fact. Hawkins shows Poppy absorbing the pain and digesting it. She responds with compassion and seems to maintain her optimism despite this.

Like the other Leigh films, this one deals with pain and loneliness and very few other directors depict the pain of loneliness as incisively and realistically as he does. It’s painful to watch and at the same time inspires genuine compassion for these characters (humanity?). He’s the King of Pain. Scott seems like the typical male character in Leigh’s films, completely crippled and deformed emotionally. The scene where Scott explodes was so shocking–the violence and pain was so visceral. In this scene and the earlier scene with Poppy’s disturbed student, I watched with interest the way Hawkins gradually shifted gears from this over-the-top Polyanna to someone sensitively and compassionately dealing with pain; the overall tone of the film shifted, too, from cartoonish humor to more poignant and even tender moments. This unfolding was one of the most satisfying parts of the film.

I think there is more to analyze about pain and loneliness. For example, I thought the Flamenco dance was an interesting contrast to Poppy’s character. Flamenco (as portrayed by the dance instructor in the film) is about expressing anger, pain and revenge through the dance. How is that similar or different to Poppy’s approach? The film also makes these social observations about the tension caused by immigration and weaves this into the pain and frustration of Scott’s character.

Leigh is deserving of nominations for direction, writing and Hawkins deserves a nomination for her performance as well.

3 Responses to “Happy Go Lucky (2008)”

  1. pen

    I looked up “Pollyanna” in dictionary.com and the definition went something like this: (n.) an excessively or blindly optimistic person; (adj.) unreasonably or illogically optimistic. I don’t think this was Poppy. While tirelessly and sometimes irritatingly upbeat, she is not blind to the hurt and suffering and pain in the people around her (driving instructor, flamenco instructor, her student). She’s at her most irritating in the beginning of the movie, where she is almost manic in her “up-beatness.” The fact that she was drunk for some of that makes it a bit more understandable, but, yikes it was so over-the-top.

    Poppy and Scott are clearly foils. She clearly loves getting a rise out of him and thinks it is harmless fun; however, when her teasing chatty flirting leads to the driving instructor’s (Scott’s) meltdown (which was gut-wrenching and embarrasing and extremely awkward to watch) Poppy’s response to him is understanding, compassionate and with a sense of self-preservation (she cuts ties with him as humanely as possible). It is real and believable and still true to her character.


    Poppy is whimsical, adventurous, colorful and flirty. She’s also caring, loyal and able to deal with deep emotions. I liked her. I liked that she and Scott did not get together. I liked that while Poppy was optimistic, things in her life did not all work out honky-dory. I like how the director and the actors make you feel for them. I felt for Scott. I felt for Poppy’s angry student. I felt for Poppy’s roommate – even she was in some pain regarding not having found a significant other.

  2. Reid


    I think what makes the film noteworthy–and Sally Hawkins’ performance and Leigh’s writing/directing exceptional–is the way Poppy is so upbeat and optimistic and yet so sensitive and receptive to pain–her own as well as others. The filmmakers do an excellent job of making her approach believable and that’s no small accomplishment.

    What did you think about the romance that Poppy seemed to be developing with that tall guy? I thought that rounded out her character in a way that made her seem more normal–that she wanted to have a romantic relationship with someone.

  3. pen

    The girls (Poppy’s roommate and sister) were all looking for a relationship. I liked their developing relationship. Their banter was fun and genuine. I also liked that they met because of her concern for her student. If she was the type to just let it go and not see his pain and dig deeper and try to help him, then she might never have met the tall guy.

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