Cast: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman
Director: Mike Leigh
Runtime: 114 min.
Genre: Comedy, Drama
I wonder if it is tough being carefree, tough not concealing yourself under commonly approved social behavior and just being what you truly are, tough being enthusiastic, talkative and very open to one and all around, tough being a creature of remarkably high energy and sprit levels, and after all that being a girl. I say girl, because if you’re all of the above I’m not sure you’re eligible to be called a woman or a lady. Hey, I’m not the one making the rules out here, so leave me. I say tough, because it is so easy and often so convenient, traditionally, to assume such a person to be flirtatious and maybe even impudent. I’m not sure I had any answers, but I sure had observations and certain inferences based on them, and I believe Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky meets those observations with alarming accuracy. I’m not sure what to make of that.
Having gone through a considerable number of opinions on the film, and if I were to believe my own reactions, I’m not sure there has been a more misunderstood film in recent memory. Happy-Go-Lucky is being likened to that enchanting Audrey Tautou film Amelie and I’m not sure that is entirely true, and neither am I on the verdict that the Sally Hawkins’ character, Poppy, is supposed to be charming. Isn’t charming the stuff of dreams, of cinema? Like Ingrid Bergman, or Amy Adams who would spellbind us with their radiance. How many times have we met someone like that in life? My score’s a zero, and I can vouch the same for some of the folks I know. Rather, I believe Poppy is supposed to represent a more gravitating reality than the trivializing verdict being passed on her performance. And Sally Hawkins, I believe, knows that. Let me give you a fair idea about Poppy, and the people around her, before we dwell deeper because this episodic film is ultimately about three sets of people – Poppy, the world around her, and us the audience. I believe a fair description ought to involve a discussion on all the three. And in doing so if I happen to share with you a few episodes I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt the film because it doesn’t have a plot. It is essentially an extract, and I have this feeling inside of me that says what transpires in the film hasn’t happened to Poppy for the first time in her life.
Poppy is floating like a feather through life not caring where to the breeze might carry her next. She is 30, a teacher at a primary school, lives with her flatmate of ten years, is very single, and usually spends the weekends boozing and dancing. She has traveled the world, at least a sizable part of it in Thailand and Vietnam, and maybe a few more neighboring countries of the continent. She loves the trampoline. She is reluctant to grow up, as in acquiring the tried and tested ways of the world, yet I believe she craves for the same albeit in a manner she prefers. She has a smiling face for everyone (so much so that The Joker might get a complex), she hurls a couple of “Hi”s across the road and waves her hand while she’s cycling and looking around, maybe for familiar faces. She walks into a small bookstore, half-pulls out a book titled The Road to Reality and exclaims that it is a place not worth going to. She meanders further inside, peeks at the busy shop owner who is probably registering new arrivals on to his database, and she attempts to strike a conversation. For no particular reason. He doesn’t pay much attention, she walks further inside running her eyes through the tiles on the shelves, she walks towards the children section, rummages through a book or two, and on her way out tries to strike yet another conversation with the owner. And this time it feels she’s trespassing, and he shoots of a glance that asks her basically to bugger off. She gets the message and she walks away.
Consider her behavior on the first day of her driving lesson. Even for her usual exuberant self, she’s way over the top in her pursuit to ratchet up a nice and warm relationship with her teacher. To absolutely bludgeon the ice that exists between any two strangers. Remember she’s a teacher herself. The instructor, a grouchy man named Scott (Eddie Marsan), uses a more heavy handed way to teach. It is a long, and a quite brilliant stretch of sequences, as we see Scott being irritated and annoyed by Poppy’s naïve and often foolish attempts at congeniality. A person of her stature ought to no better, I believe, and here’s where the film walks off into a paradox, and here’s is something that I would prefer to be discussed later. It is probably the film’s most important moment and one that needs to be given most attention to what’s being said and how it is being said.
Scott makes for the second set of people, the ones around Poppy. And here too, there’s a slight segregation. Forgive me such a convoluted take, but bear with me, and I believe I would be able to unwind for you. Even more so if you choose to watch the film which I recommend you to. Not because you would like it, but because there is much to be learned the way film examines you and that doesn’t happen all that often. So, returning to the segregation, there’re three kinds of people at work in the film around Poppy – (i) strangers who’re peeked into by Poppy and react in the obvious and often necessary manner by getting annoyed, for e.g. the book shop owner, (ii) the people who know her quite well, who understand her and they are the ones who unabashedly love her, for obvious reasons, and (iii) the ones who’re mildly affected by her, and mistake her for being flirtatious. I would leave you to decide which is which.
That is why I say I’m not sure Poppy was supposed to be charming, or someone instantly likeable. I believe the casting of Sally Hawkins is the correct one. I was often annoyed, much annoyed, not by her overall buoyancy, for that is her right, but by her incessant attempts to peek into and, if possible, tingle other people’s lives. That is why I say charming is exactly the opposite of what the film intends to achieve. If someone as divine and as magical as Amy Adams were to walk into a store and out of nowhere decided to peek into me, I am not sure I would be able to resist the twinkle in the eyes. Nor would many. Hawkins on the other hand brings a deal of annoying edge to it, thus making it all the more real. Sometimes, someone gets on our nerves with their exuberance, someone we don’t know. Poppy is irritating, more so early on in the film, because she is supposed to.
The manner in which audience react to her is often mirrored by the strangers in the film. We’re all judgmental in nature, and we’re all prone to easy assessments of a personality, often without much examination, and often with great error. The film could be a great examination of discerning audiences all the more, because we tend to over analyze and often, look too deep into something that doesn’t need to. For instance what do I make of her missing jewels (Yes, I know she dropped it off at her new boyfriend’s apartment, but she could have worn it just the same), and that the first time she wears anything different than her usual attire is during the final few moments. Or do I need to make anything of it? Believe me, I’m not letting the bleak outlook of Leigh’s previous films affect me one bit.
I would have resigned citing my cynical nature as a reason but then here’s where the film throws at us a googly. The paradox I mentioned before. It is that she has traveled the world, that she knows its ways, that she understands people, that she isn’t naïve. I’m not sure I found that easy to digest, because if that were the case, Poppy ought to have known better in several scenarios. I think she must have come across another Scott in her life. I wonder if her tryst with traveling was necessary to be included. I mean, do happy-go-lucky people actually have to travel and ‘know’ the ‘truth’ about the world before they learn the world around them. Such people are what they are and they always have been that way. It hasn’t occurred to them one fine day. I believe the traveling thing is a bit of a contrivance. Being cheerful and happy gets along just fine with naivety. I mean, shouldn’t happiness be blissful? I don’t know.
And there in lay another layer to the film. To Poppy. She peeks into other people’s lives. She decides to sit with a tramp and listen to him while she’s walking back home in the middle of the night. Why does she feel the need to be a rescuer? Is she lonely, emotionally, that she wants to such more people inside the vacuum she is in? Is there a certain degree of haughtiness, a certain level of self-righteousness in her emotional outlook to life that leads her to believe that she ought to make everyone around her feel exactly the way she perceives life? Why doesn’t she just get along enjoying her own world, and stop being an emotional vigilante?
And I can only wonder. Because that is where I stopped feeling for and with the character, and merely understood her. I believe I know a certain Poppy in real life, back from office. She is chirpy, she is warm and she’s one of my favorite people at the moment. She doesn’t strive to spread happiness around, but it is merely her very presence that does the trick. She is oblivious, and in a way she’s naïve. I respect her for that. She is misunderstood, often tragically so, and I wish I could help it. Maybe, it is because of her I could understand Happy-Go-Lucky, and I ought to thank her for that. And I pray to God she doesn’t change, not even a bit, but only grow.
Note: Happy-Go-Lucky might either be one of the most brilliant examinations of this decade or it might just be a very good film. And in both cases, I’m sitting on the fence because I have no idea. I feel safe here.