Four years after Vera Drake, one of the saddest and most downbeat films of his long career, Mike Leigh has returned with Happy-Go-Lucky, a film that – as its title suggests – is concerned with the lighter side of life. Leigh's films have always struck a careful balance between humour and pain, but he has rarely tipped the balance so favourably towards the happier end of the spectrum, and in his latest picture he flatly refuses to undercut the perennially optimistic central character with any sense of irony or cynicism. Poppy Cross (Sally Hawkins) is a 30 year-old primary school teacher who lives in a rented North London flat with best friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman, who makes an excellent foil for Hawkins). While most people of Poppy's age are thinking of settling down and starting a family, she's just enjoying life as it comes; partying with her pals at the weekend, exercising on a trampoline after work, taking flamenco lessons (featuring an over-indulged performance from Karina Fernandez), and dreaming up fun activities for the kids in her classroom. Of course, not everyone finds Poppy's relentless "cheer up, it might never 'appen!" attitude so appealing, and in the opening scene she is given the cold shoulder by a bookseller as she tries to make small talk. It doesn't bother her, though, she simply wanders out of the shop with a smile on her face and heads off to brighten up somebody else's day.
As Poppy strolls through Leigh's meandering plot, brimming with joi de vivre, she may prove to be as much of a test for the audience as she is for those around her. She's A gawky free spirit who habitually responds to most remarks with a silly pun or quip, and her high-toned voice and squeaky laugh seem designed to grate on the viewers' nerves. The fact that she doesn't become unbearable is a credit to both Leigh and Hawkins, who have crafted a character that grows on us almost imperceptibly as the film progresses, with Hawkins' marvellously game performance bringing an extraordinary sense of life to the part, and allowing us to see different shades to her character. In the classroom, Poppy is attentive and engaged with her children, particularly when one reveals a troubled home life; and she seems genuinely interested in everyone she meets, keen to share their experiences or understand their situation. Happy-Go-Lucky is a portrait of genuine goodness, and Leigh's film asks us why we generally view someone like Poppy with suspicion, or insistently ask them to "grow up" when they embrace life's pleasures with such childlike glee.
One person who views Poppy in this way is Scott (Eddie Marsan), the driving instructor whom Poppy calls when the theft of her bicycle ("I never even got a chance to say goodbye", she laments) forces her to take the lessons she has been putting off for so long. Scott is as tightly wound as Poppy is free-spirited, and as he tries to educate Poppy using his rigid and didactic methods, he grows ever more frustrated at her blasé attitude. Their scenes together are a study in contrasts, but Leigh doesn't labour the point, instead allowing their encounters to breathe and their odd relationship to develop naturally. Hawkins has rightly won great acclaim for Happy-Go-Lucky, but I think the most extraordinary performance in this film comes from Marsan as the misanthropic and rage-filled Scott. The grim-faced instructor rages at the ills of society as he views it with disgust from the inside of his car; he rants about multiculturalism – urging Poppy to lock the door when he sees two black teenagers cycling past – and he sneers at the hedonistic lifestyle enjoyed by Poppy and her friends. For her part, Poppy seems more amused than upset by his views (responding with her frequent refrain "What are you like!"), but Scott's barely repressed anger takes both of them to some dangerous places.
Marsan's performance is stunningly detailed, and it's clearly a product of Leigh's improvisational working methods in which he and the actors build their characters and the story from the ground up. At times Happy-Go-Lucky displays the very best qualities this practice has to offer, producing lived-in performances and relationships that feel real, but it also displays a couple of the flaws that always seem to exist in the director's work. Leigh has so often displayed an unfortunate willingness to caricature his more upwardly mobile characters, and here Poppy's pregnant sister and her under-the-thumb husband take on those roles. She's snippy and materialistic, while he's a wet fish, and Leigh also works in a scene wherein the sister takes Poppy's celebration of a responsibility-free lifestyle as a personal dig at her, resulting in an argument that feels like it has been forced into the narrative. Some of Leigh's other choices are curious too; for example, he includes a bizarre scene in which Poppy meets a tramp, and while it's very well played and atmospheric, it doesn't feel like it belongs here at all. I was also disappointed that the director failed to follow-up on the subplot involving the boy being bullied by his mother's boyfriend and taking it out on the other kids in the class. There's an wonderfully powerful scene in which Poppy and a social worker coax the truth out of him, but then that strand of the narrative is quickly dumped, its sole purpose being to introduce Poppy to the social worker who acts as her love interest.
It feels like a cheap bit of plotting, but the ensuing relationship is played with great charm. Happy-Go-Lucky is that sort of film; its flaws tend to slip away in the memory as the picture's overall sense of warmth lingers on. It's the most uplifting and joyous film Leigh has made since 1999's Topsy-Turvy – still his greatest work – and its feelgood nature seems genuine in a way most "heartwarming" films don't. Leigh has also given us two more characters to treasure; Poppy can be take her place next to Beverly from Abigail's Party, Cynthia from Secrets and Lies, or Vera Drake as one of his great females, while Scott is a darkly compelling figure to rank alongside Naked's unforgettable Johnny. In the opening moments of Happy-Go-Lucky many audience members might be pleading for Poppy to shut up, but it's hard not to fall for her as she ploughs on in the face of grumpiness and despair, with her indefatigable attempts to find happiness taking on an almost heroic status. "You can't make everyone happy, you know" Zoe tells Poppy late in the film; "I know", she replies, "but you can try, can't you".