Need a bit of spring cleaning? Mike Leigh's latest film will do the trick. Cinema's king of human misery has changed tack to bring us 'Happy-Go- Lucky'.
After delivering such hard-hitting films as 'Topsy Turvy', 'Secrets and Lies', 'All or Nothing' and more recently 'Vera Drake', Leigh's latest mood-altering release is a complete change of direction.
Four years after his earnest tale of a 1950s abortionist comes 'Happy-Go-Lucky' ('HGL'), a film that, from the opening credits, is exactly as it says on the tin. Although the effervescent comedy is lighter and less edgy than all of Leigh's previous releases, bar 'Career Girls', it still comes complete with a mesh of messages, packed full of humorous interludes. This is arguably his most accessible film to date, with a great sense of heart and humour, which will ensure it reaches further afield than his usual art house audience.
Leigh's new protagonist, school teacher Poppy ('Vera Drake', 'All or Nothing' and 'Layer Cake's Hawkins), has a very optimistic approach to her simple-yet-fulfilling life, which is in stark contrast to the negative attitudes she comes across on a daily basis. In one scene she responds to goading by giggling, "My five-year plan? What, like Stalin?". Poppy has surrounded herself with a similarly-minded network of friends and family, including her flatmate of 10 years, Zoe (Zegerman, making a strong film debut). Happy being single, Poppy's winning personality attracts people to her like fireflies with the obvious result... She's not single for long. Cue Tim (Roukin).
It's not all cotton balls and sugar-coated candy for the upbeat free-spirit, though. Leigh throws in enough curveballs to test her resolve and dampen her spirit but one by one she smashes them away. What begins as a potentially irritating, über-chirpy character turns out to be a very likeable girl, who has enough street smarts to make her both believable and inspirational. The realism of Leigh's work is essential for creating such an original, unforgettable individual, but the real kudos goes to Hawkins.
The Berlin Film Festival got it right when they awarded Hawkins with its Silver Bear Best Actress accolade. It can have been no mean feat to create Poppy and not just because of the type of character that she is - a likeable juxtaposition of light-heartedness mixed with street savvy. The real challenge was to create the character out of the Mike Leigh school of filmmaking. He begins each film without a script - literally nothing, not even one word written down. Through an intense process of rehearsal and improvisation he and his cast create their characters and his original, which eventually becomes their combined, vision for the film. The results are perfectly rounded characters, who interact flawlessly.
Hawkins' award-winning 'Vera Drake' co-star Eddie Marsan is excellent as Scott, her homophobic, racist driving teacher who rants his way through continuous satanist monologues and conspiracy theories, at times echoing David Thewlis' character Johnny in 'Naked'. His personality clash with Poppy results in some of the most dramatic, and poignant, scenes in the film.
'Happy-Go-Lucky' continues its analysis of teachers, highlighting the underrated importance of this career, or vocation, in society. Leigh compares various approaches, most notably Poppy's gentle, passionate approach versus Scott's embittered, psychotic bullying.
No Leigh film would be complete without a truckload of observational comedy to keep the drama chuckling along. He uses humour to reveal the ups and downs that his characters face and to show that ultimately, as Poppy says, life "can be hard at times. But that's part of it".
In an interview with RTÉ.ie, Leigh said: "It's important to reject the growing fashion to be pessimistic and gloomy because the world is in a bad way. Everywhere there are people on the ground getting on with it and being positive and this is what I wanted to highlight in this film."
Leigh's regular cinematographer Dick Pope's realist approach lends a documentary style to the film. This is Leigh's first film to be shot in widescreen and Pope takes full advantage with shots such as Poppy bouncing in and out of shot on a trampoline. Bafta-nominated editor Jim Clark ensures the pace is fast and continuous, slowing only where Poppy comes face to face with a homeless drunk and - quelle surprise - he's Irish. However, unlike numerous stereotypes, there is a truth to Leigh's take on the immigrant lost soul, thanks to the performance from 'Prosperity's Stanley Townsend.
As the film draws to a close you may wonder about 'Happy-Go-Lucky's purpose or whether its message - a bubbly, life-affirming girl meets a scary jerk who tries to bully her out of her happy place and into his pessimistic camp - is enough for a two-hour-plus film?
There will be those who'll be quick to write Poppy off as a make-believe fantasy but in so doing they could be missing a valid point. By looking at one life, Leigh is lifting a mirror to modern society and raising a glass half-full to its positive-minded members. As a colourful, comedic snapshot of working-class life it's a simple-yet-clever little bit of entertainment, with strong characters and dialogue.
In comparison to Leigh's 'Abigail's Party', 'Happy-Go-Lucky' is just that, but it's a breath of fresh air that'll clear out those gloomy cobwebs.
To read the interview with 'Happy-Go-Lucky' star Sally Hawkins, click here.
To read our inteview with 'Happy-Go-Lucky' director Mike Leigh click here.