Mike Leigh discovers optimism in cheerful London tale
DIR: MIKE LEIGH
ST: SALLY HAWKINS, EDDIE MARSAN, ALEXIS ZEGERMAN
You only have to watch an episode of Gavin & Stacy to see the impact Mike Leigh has had on British comedy, but the director’s last two films displayed a worldview that was sombre, if not depressed. The backstreet abortions of Vera Drake were never going to be a cause of levity, and the comedy of the much-underrated All Or Nothing was wrapped in so much pain that it became almost imperceptible.
All of which makes the unrelenting cheerfulness of Happy-Go-Lucky quite a shock. It’s almost as if the director has challenged himself to put his instincts aside and view the world from the sunny side of the street.
On paper, the story is rather slight: Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a primary school teacher who has a laugh with her pals and takes driving lessons in the streets of North London. The driving instructor, Scott, (Eddie Marsan) is a ball of repression, a borderline fascist. He is urban rage personified, ranting about speed cameras and immigrants: “You can make jokes when you’re driving,” he warns, “but you will crash and you will die laughing.”
But Poppy is unconcerned. She is as light as Scott is dark. And while it’s easy to imagine Scott as the hero of a Mike Leigh film, this really is Sally Hawkins’ show. Her performance is every bit as bold as that of David Thewlis in Naked, but where Thewlis was bitter, Hawkins is benign. When Poppy’s bike is stolen it is a matter of mild regret – “we didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye” – but she keeps on smiling. She simply doesn’t engage with negativity.
The look of the film is a bright and bold as a Martin Parr photograph – a Tesco Extra petrol station has rarely looked so cinematic – and, yes, there are times when Leigh falls back into his comfort zone, mocking the pretensions of the lower middle class. When Poppy visits her married sister in her seaside home with a “bit of a blue and silver theme”, a flat-pack table, and a henpecked husband who is too scared to turn on his Playstation, there are echoes of the suburban pretensions the director mocked in Abigail’s Party. But the director’s heart doesn’t seem to be in the satire.
Has Mike Leigh got happy? Well, the suspicion remains that his temperament is closer to that of his befuddled driving instructor, but this journey into optimism is a very welcome diversion.