Poppy (played by the marvellous Sally Hawkins) is a glass-half-full kind of girl, a single thirty-something who lives in a rented flat with her more cynical best friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) and loves her work at a local primary, where the kids adore her. She dresses to please herself, a riot of mismatched colours and cheap plastic jewellery, and talks off the top of her head in a sing-song ramble of blather, truisms and elbow-nudging encouragements. This being a Mike Leigh film, there isn’t much else in the way of a grand, over-arcing story or a schematic plot of events, the free-wheeling director preferring to amble among his characters and their relationships than impose upon them anything as restricting as a scripted narrative. It’s a hugely enjoyable meander, with the most charming of guides in the wide-eyed, open-minded Poppy.
The story proper starts when, as part of her efforts to grow up, Poppy starts taking driving lessons around the streets of London. Her instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan) is the chalk to her cheese, a mean-spirited, almost silent bigot seething with all manner of ill-considered hatreds. The lessons, an hour every Saturday morning, are brilliantly executed comedy vignettes, witty and sharp and expertly played, that later give way to an insidious threat as Scott relaxes and starts expressing himself. Later, the young teacher takes a walk through the ruins of a factory where she has a strained conversation with a mad tramp (Stanley Townsend). It’s a scene that sits uneasily with the rest of the story, a moment of sobriety as the giggles stop but one that feels forced and carefully staged in contrast to the rest of the film.
And so it goes in this series of snapshots of this unique woman’s life; a flamenco lesson, a night on the town, an afternoon in a boat on a lake. At times, Leigh extends the moment to let us in further, like when Poppy challenges a child whose boisterousness has crossed over into bullying. Adopting her serious face, she deftly brings about a resolution in her own affably tender manner and in the process meets a man (Samuel Roukin), a children’s counsellor, who shares her eagerness to smile and takes her out on a couple of sweet, simple dates. In between, Polly takes her youngest sister (Kate O’Flynn) on a trip up the M1 to visit her uptight, heavily pregnant middle sister for a barbeque; a three piece suite of suburban embarrassments, simmering resentments and passive-aggressive confrontations told in miniature as a spiky commentary on how bland life on the outskirts can be, if you are primed to succumb.
Poppy is some ticket and Hawkins plays her brilliantly; her pixie head tilted to one side as she waits for enough of a lull in the conversation to drop another pleasantry. In other hands, Poppy could turn out to be deeply annoying, but Hawkins has the skill to only allow this to happen when it needs to. Even though Hawkins’ eyes betray hints of loneliness, this is a woman surrounded by people, family, friends, school kids and London itself. Love, when it finds her, banishes this creeping darkness, and we are glad of it. Characters like Poppy can’t be sad or conflicted, we couldn’t bear it. Happy-Go-Lucky is a lovely, lively comedy drama, the best British film since This Is England, with which it would make a fine double bill.