(Mike Leigh, UK, 2008)


In the cinema of Mike Leigh, the opposite of happiness is not sadness: it’s anger. Hence the emphasis on stress, rage, bad vibes, personal blockages of various sorts that lead to low-level grumpiness (most of his films) or high-level violence (Naked, 1993).


Happy-Go-Lucky gets interesting – far more engaging than most of Leigh’s efforts past or present – once it starts tracing (or noodling around) a particular nexus of physical states of everyday being: dancing, drinking, driving, madness, affection (between girls: it’s Leigh’s Sex in the City), bullying …


The film neither much starts anywhere nor ends anywhere – the “life is a boat, so keep rowing” final scene is particularly weak. But, in-between, it explores this zone of physical/emotional life from a particular and unusual (because little seen in movies) angle of attack: it’s about teaching and social work, the nurturing/caring professions (and their perversions, as with the driving teacher Scott played by Eddie Marsan), and their way of plaintively trying to puncture through to a truth. “You’re an only child, then?” “Do you see your folks much?” “Got a girlfriend?”


In the bad-vibe complex drawn here, there’s an intriguing link between Leigh and Maurice Pialat. In John Cassavetes, on the other hand, there’s more real joy, amidst all the hysteria and pain …


As a film, Happy-Go Lucky has a pretty awful score by Gary Yershon (a typical deficiency in Leigh’s work); and mainly bland staging and cinematography – although the car scenes (shades of Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten  [2002]!) do have some zip in them.


We see, familiar in Leigh, the old narrative-moral trajectory of judging the central woman (Sally Hawkins as Poppy) and bringing her around to the supposed maturity of hetero bonding and imminent motherhood. Does the crazed driver speak the truth of the heroine’s immaturity? The process of truth-telling is always loaded in Leigh; he displays a rather resentful world-view.


The bizarre promo/review image of the film portrays Poppy as relentlessly optimistic, cheerful, striving to bring happiness to all … But this is not, in fact, the case. Rather, she is relentlessly jokey, which is quite a different matter. Sometimes her happy behaviour is a shield, an evasion; sometimes it is just mindless patter; sometimes it even creates intimacy (between girls, at any rate). And when she’s with the mad Scott, she’s mainly just listening, as a passing “cover”.

MORE Leigh: All or Nothing, Career Girls, Secrets & Lies, Life is Sweet, Peterloo

© Adrian Martin 3 March 2009

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search