Oct 18, 2008

Happy Go Lucky

Wow. I love this film. Sally Hawkins gives a spectacular, miraculous performance as Poppy, a 30 year old woman who is always cheerful. She is always smiling, always finding everything hilarious, always trying to connect with people in a breezy, spontaneous way. Some people may interpret her bubbliness as unwelcome weirdness, or a desperate need for attention, but the good thing is, she doesn't care. She is a genuinely upbeat, joyful person, a bit on the childish side, but not an innocent.
There isn't one single moment in which her character is saddled with comic clichés. Director Mike Leigh is a wise and deeply empathetic observer of character and I feel that this movie is actually more subversive than it seems. For starters, who is writing movies with a strong female character like this? No one.
Poppy forces you to look at yourself through the prism of her character. While you and me and probably everyone else would be throwing a fit of anger over our stolen bike, Poppy is like "Dang! We never got to say a proper goodbye". And just like that, she brushes it off. A surly bookstore clerk is rude to her, she brushes it off, neutralizing him with a wink and a smile. She seems genuinely incapable of anger. It makes one wonder what is it like to live without anger. What is it like to truly love your life. For some people, anger and kvetching are like oxygen, their absence is inconceivable. But even lower back pain can't make Poppy's spirit flag. She laughs through the ordeal...
The miracle in the performance is that she is totally believable. Hawkins inhabits her from the inside. This woman has a lot of inner light and it shines through all the time. Her fashion sense is also incredible. It's so refreshing to see a paradigm of brilliant acting that is not dependent on the tearing out of hair and the crying of rivers. I wonder if Hawkins' feat is not so much more difficult than the dramatic emoting that usually garners actors awards. It seems impossible to fake happiness such as hers. Pure, sincere joy is not an easy feeling to sustain all the time for humans, let alone for an actor, and true empathy, true sincerity, all of Poppy's core virtues feel right and true. She is very funny and quirky and though she is not malicious, she is not dumb, she likes to provoke gently. What a concept: she is truly happy with her life. The brilliance of this film is that it is not calculated to be cute (like for instance Amelie, a movie I loathe). Leigh is a much more serious artist than that. He consistently defies our expectations of what constitutes comedy and even drama. The movie is totally fresh and original and devoid of clichés and it has the flow of life.
Of course, one wonders how can you chirp around in a world with so much darkness? But Poppy does not turn a blind eye, nor does she live in a fantasy world. She sees hurt and pain and tries to do something about it. She is deeply empathetic. There is a scene in which she wanders at night into a blighted, desolate area and she runs into a crazy homeless guy. We brace for horror and violence but the scene turns out to be something out of Beckett. It seems deliberately theatrical. The guy mumbles almost incoherently about "she" and "he" and "them" and Poppy listens and understands exactly what he means. And you know she is not faking, as most of us would do to try to get out of harm's way. She means it. She is also cognizant of the risks she is taking. She knows where she is, but it seems like she can't help connecting. She does naturally the opposite of what we also do naturally, which is to turn away and disconnect.
The core of the film are Poppy's encounters with Scott, her driving teacher, in an equally incredible performance by Eddie Marsan, who is exactly her diametrical opposite. This is a man that has forbidden joy to enter his life. He is an angry, bitter, upset guy, a misanthrope with absurd rules, conspiracy theories and prejudices. For him to come into contact with Poppy is a shock to his system. As Abbas Kiarostami has said, a car is the smallest intimate space where you can have the maximum of conflict between two people. Here you have it in a nutshell, two completely different ways of looking at life clashing over the steering wheel. Their driving lesson scenes are a hoot. Scott tries to quash Poppy's bubbliness with his exaggerated concerns for safety. He is deeply offended by her insistence on wearing high heel boots in the car. A classic control freak. She laughs it off, but she never relents. She may be happy, but she is no pushover. Poppy is like an extreme version of killing with kindness.
What transpires, with enormous grace and subtlety, is that Scott is somehow attracted to Poppy very much despite himself, a lovely and intelligent example of "opposites attract". He cannot bring himself to admit it, much less communicate it, and Poppy is slow to realize it. The entire film one waits for something horrible to shock Poppy out of her happiness, and her confrontation with Scott is it. But she is much stronger than him, his hate is a mark of weakness, whereas her compassion is a shield of strength.
Some people, when confronted with Poppy's happiness, mistake it as an accusation or as some sort of rubbing it in, or even as cruel flirtation. It doesn't seem possible to them that she would be so quirky and happy without an agenda. These instances of misinterpretation cause her deep hurt, because it would never cross her mind to wield her joy to hurt someone. It's heartbreaking that people should misunderstand joy as a ploy. But it is so rare, who can blame them?
Leigh gives his actors time to develop their themes and the scenes have a beautiful rhythm to them. The movie meanders with a sweet, gentle flow. Leigh is a master at creating extraordinary intimacy between people. He gives actors plenty of space to be totally human and they take it. It must be the highest blessing for an actor to work with him.
It is incredibly moving to come across a good character who is not self-conscious or preachy about her decency, who just is. And she is happy to be.

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