The opening scene of Mike Leigh’s shamefully overlooked Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) is a master class in establishing a character. Poppy, one of the great female characters in cinema, is introduced riding her bike. Her course is a wobbly wheeled delight, she’s dressed eccentrically and smiles frequently, but what is most noticeable is her full-eyed wonder, her attention to her surroundings. She stops, chains up her bike and enters a bookstore. She browses and attempts to elicit a smile from the sullen employee. She extends her goodwill toward him again and again and coming up empty she merely chirps her well-wishes as she leaves.
Poppy, we recognize, is relentlessly joyful and ever seeking to connect to people. When she returns to the place where she left her bike she finds it missing. “Oh no,” she moans, but is unable to hold back her smile. “I didn’t even get to say goodbye.” Dear viewer, if you do not love Poppy at this point then I suggest you abandon the movie and take up something more dour, reports on the Middle East perhaps or some Kant before bedtime. If however you were dazzled by her reaction, if you are infected by her buoyancy, then great will be your reward in Happy-Go-Lucky.
The story is quotidian and borderline uneventful. She takes driving lessons when her bike is stolen, she switches from trampolining to dancing for recreation when she tweaks her back, she deals with a violent child, visits her sister and meets a man. The climax of the movie is an emotional outburst from her driving instructor that is quickly over and unresolved. The movie concludes with Poppy and her roommate afloat on a lake. Mere plot does not encapsulate the movie, for on the surface it may seem simplistic to the point of vacuity, but there are two themes that are quietly developed that give it depth: Empathy and Freedom.
Poppy is effusive, but it isn’t a happiness born out of a denial of evil and suffering. Whenever she encounters distress, anger or sadness she seeks to enter their unhappiness be they relatives, friends, coworkers or even strangers on the street. When Scott, her deeply disturbed driving instructor, unleashes a spittle-ridden rant on the education system, dismissing and even insulting her, she pushes through his ire realizing that he was bullied as a child and had never recovered from it. She extends herself to him, but her kindness is rebuffed as it was by the bookstore clerk. When her own sister lashes out at her carefree lifestyle she seeks to diffuse the situation and defends her sister once she leaves in a huff. She is a peacemaker at constant pains to help those around her.
The theme of freedom is made in a subtle, but striking way. In many ways the movie is an anti-road movie. It’s a buddy picture that eschews the sanctifying effects of travel. Poppy’s movement is steadily impeded. On one level she seems to be the most trapped character in the film. She can’t drive, her bike is stolen, she’s injured, and perhaps most incapacitating of all is her perceived arrested development: a childish, partying grade-school teacher who is blindly optimistic to the point of naivete (or so it could be said). In a society so consumed with upward mobility and its lateral counterpart for Poppy to live in satisfaction is a sort of treason, one that must be contested by the discontent. But Poppy, despite her impediments, is the most free character.
To return to the bookstore, clues are embedded about Poppy’s role in the world. First she draws out the book The Road to Reality, whose ludicrous full title is A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, and she quips, “Don’t want to be going there.” In fact, she is surrounded by travel books, and books on astronomy and reality. Examining the background turns up the titles: Two Caravans, On the Road to Kandahar, Among Dead Cities, Certainty, Einstein’s Universe Chomsky on Anarchism and Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer. With Poppy set amidst these books we’re to realize that she is a kind of lifeforce and explorer. In the children’s section and pulls out The Kingdom of the Sun, a book on the planets. This is the first of several astronomical/flight innuendos. Poppy is associated with the sun thereby clueing us into the fact that her flights are not just of fancy.
When we first see her in class she’s reporting on the flight of the Arctic Tern:
“But the… the biggest journey of them all is of the arctic tern. Because he flies from the Arctic… Yeah?… all the way – wow – across the world to the South Pole. Isn’t that incredible? From the North to the South Pole and that is… ssh! And that is 9,300 miles. That’s right. Wow, wow.”
Then she dons a bird mask crafted from a paper bag and leads her class in a flight around the room. She refers to her class as her flock and when she mentions that one among them has gotten violent she says, “But you’ve got to love them, right?” In another scene Poppy transitions from a brightly lit flower garden, celestial, with literal waves of green, to a grimy alleyway at night. There she encounters a mentally troubled man who balefully croons at the night sky. Her attempts to minister to him are ignored (as they always are) and when she returns home to her roommate she reports that she “went to the moon and back”. Her travels are in the travails of others. She takes up the burdens of those around her, undaunted by the insults and intimations that her perspective of the world is ineffectual. At one point she even walks around hugging a globe to herself as though she were pregnant with the world.
Peter Travers put it best when he said, “Happy-Go-Lucky is more than a movie, it’s a gift.” Sally Hawkins is a revelation as Poppy, Eddie Marsan as Scott is perfect as the wounded soul, but the deft hand of Mike Leigh is what separates this from the slough of Feel Good movies. This is not a movie where darkness is denied or minimized, nor is it a movie where darkness is triumphed over tidily. Poppy is presented to us as a model, unwavering in the face of challenges. She isn’t presented as perfect for she confesses to some youthful indiscretions and even now might be over indulgent, and yet she is unrelenting in her spreading her joy to those around her that their joy may be full. It is no mistake that her given name is Pauline Cross; fitting that she is named after the man who wrote: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Poppy is thought by many to be a frivolous person, but to the stoic the smiler is always idiotic.