It is hard to imagine a film with such an upbeat sounding title turning out as miserably unenjoyable as Happy-Go-Lucky, the latest film directed by Mike Leigh.
Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a school teacher with an impossibly sunny disposition. She talks incessantly, goading those around her to share her world view of unrelenting optimism. A back injury causing significant pain is reason to giggle; her bicycle being stolen worth only a shrug and a smile. When she decides to take driving lessons to obtain a licence, she meets driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan) who not only doesn’t share her optimism but is downright bothered by it and seems determined to make her see things from his perspective.
While Hawkins does a reasonable job, it is the character of Poppy that causes most problems – she is just so unbelievably positive that she becomes unrealistic and at times frankly annoying. Other reviewers have commented that this may be a character you either love or hate, but to rest a film so squarely on the shoulders of someone so many will loathe is a major risk. The character of Poppy seems too unnaturally happy (and thus is poorly developed), and any chance of the audience maintaining their belief in her is lost.
Around her, other performers do a reasonable job, although none gets the opportunities afforded Hawkins. Marsan is a little scary as the truculent driving instructor, while Alexis Zegerman as housemate Zoe is restrained enough to appear far more self-controlled in comparison. Samuel Roukin as Tim is forced to be straight man to Poppy’s crazed affect, and it is never clear why Tim and Poppy would hit it off.
The failure of the lead to engender a positive response limits the impact of the film. Scenes that may have been intended to charm (such as a bizarre interlude with a homeless man) in fact come off only as ridiculous. Additionally, the decision to linger during many scenes means that what may have been constructed as exquisite discomfort for the audience rapidly becomes only irritating. It is hard to imagine so many successive scenes can all be so uncomfortable, and yet Leigh manages to usurp one sequence with another causing similar distress.
Presumably Leigh’s intention is to challenge audience expectations of ‘normality’ by creating a character far outside our experience of people’s attitudes and using her to provoke introspection. While this may be a noble aim, the failure of Poppy to seem anything like a real person means the film loses its impact. Perhaps others will find Happy-Go-Lucky more worthwhile, but for this reviewer it was just painful.Rating: