Review by Gordon Justesen
Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Sylvestra Le Touzel
Director: Mike Leigh
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 119 Minutes
Release Date: March 10, 2009
“You keep on rowin’, and I’ll keep on smilin’.”
If Oscars were handed out for movie titles, Happy-Go-Lucky would be an easy winner because it perfectly defines the movie in general. More to the point, it defines the lead character of the film, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), who is perhaps the single most cheerful and optimistic character in the history of movies. A character like this would usually serve as a side character in a movie, which makes this a rather unique character study.
And the performance of Ms. Hawkins, who won a Golden Globe and garnered a Best Actress Oscar nomination, is the reason to see the film. The film also makes a startling revelation in writer/director Mike Leigh. One look at this sweet-natured character piece, and you’d swear it wasn’t from the same writer and director of Naked, Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake.
At first glance, I assumed that Leigh was trying to challenge himself to make the most cheerful and uplifting comedy he could possibly make after all his intense dramatic films. What I didn’t know is that Leigh has actually made a number of light comedies in the past. Among them are Life is Sweet, Topsy-Turvy and All or Nothing.
I also think that Leigh was giving himself another challenge; to make the ultimate character study ever. By that, I mean that the movie is specifically about its lead character, Poppy, and how her sunny personality affects those around her. There’s no real significant story being told here, but because we’re in the presence of such a wonderfully realized and light-hearted individual, the film ends up being all the more worthwhile.
So who is Poppy and what’s she all about, exactly? She works as a primary school teacher, and trust me when I say I wish all teachers had her level of personality. Other than that, she’s simply a person who’s more high on life than anyone else on the planet.
I’d be lying if I said the film doesn’t take some adjusting to. Again, there’s no significant narrative structure taking place for a good bit of Happy-Go-Lucky. Even as I felt my heart being lifted by the radiant Ms. Hawkins, I kept thinking in the back of my mind if there was going to be more to the film.
As it turns out, there is more to the story, and you simply have to stick with the film because it won’t hit you until its closing moments. The centerpiece of the story deals with Poppy taking a series of driving lessons. The effect she has on her grouchy driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), is perhaps the biggest surprise the film has to offer.
Prior to this film, I had only seen Sally Hawkins in two films, which were Layer Cake and Woody Allen’s much underrated Cassandra’s Dream. She’s had a number of small roles in a few British based films, including Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake. But her breakthrough role here has instantly guaranteed that we will be seeing a lot more of her in the future, which is a good thing.
What Happy-Go-Lucky doesn’t provide in the way of compelling story it more than makes up for with a terrifically heart-warming character you will never want to part ways with. Sally Hawkins’ performance alone makes this film worth seeing for those who admire quirky comedies and unique character studies. It really does leave a Happy impact.
The anamorphic presentation on this Miramax release is very well handled. From what I’ve heard, Mike Leigh’s films are never quite stunning in terms of visuals. If that’s true, then he really stepped up his game with this film, which definitely looks more elegant compared to the few other films of his that I’ve seen. As a result, the presentation boasts terrific colors, crisp imagery and sharp skin tones.
The 5.1 mix won’t win any sound prizes, but for a dialogue driven piece it certainly gets the job done. Spoken words are delivered sharply through the channels and the London setting does provide some neat background sounds within the location.
The disc features a commentary with writer/director Mike Leigh, as well as two well handled featurettes; “Happy-In-Character” and “Behind the Wheel of Happy-Go-Lucky”.
On the basis of telling a rich, compelling story, I can’t really say Happy-Go-Lucky will satisfy. But I don’t really need to recommend it in that regard, since by now just about everyone who’s heard of the film knows the reason to see it. Sally Hawkins is a star in the making, and her wonderful performance here illustrates that perfectly.