Here is a film that very simply observes everyday life, one that never once stoops to sermonizing in any way. Yet Happy-Go-Lucky is the most powerful message movie about the importance of positivity that I've ever seen. Within the film there are moments so keenly and truthfully observed, characters so effortlessly realized, that it is like watching real life in motion.
That's typical for Mike Leigh, that British director of such beautiful films as Secrets & Lies andVera Drake, who specializes in telling stories which highlight the extraordinary elements of ordinary people and things. Here the focus of his keen eye is Poppy, a primary school teacher who is happy--very simply, very truly happy. There is no hint of pretense nor a wink of cynicism. Poppy simply chooses to stay on the bright side.
If Poppy is a delight as a character, then the performance by Sally Hawkins is a revelation. Hawkins--who has been circulating British TV and film in small roles for most of the past decade--imbues Poppy with such unabashed giddy charm that the character would become caricature if the actress didn't also add a thick layer of level-headed maturity to give Poppy a gleeful elegance, an unshakeable grace. By striking such a balance, it becomes clear that Poppy is more than she appears--much more than the sum of her ridiculous clothes and cutesy name and non-stop giggles. Poppy is, in fact, as weathered and knowledgeable as they come. She is far from one-dimensional; she has ample capacity for anger, sternness, passion, and melancholy. The fact that she has the inner strength to remain above the fray of depression, anxiety, and bitterness doesn't mean she's had it easy or has somehow skated naively by--in truth, her lack of negativity makes her stronger than nearly everyone around her.
What's so surprisingly, delightfully starling about Happy-Go-Lucky is its utter lack of cynicism. The film is an extension of Poppy--it purely and effortlessly celebrates the joy of existence, through good and through bad. Poppy's happiness is not there to mask hidden pain or buried secrets; it is not a front for a deep-seeded depression or lost innocence. Her happiness simplyis. It is not her downfall, it is her triumph. And rather than cause us to look down on her, Leigh chooses to makes us admire her, emulate her, and leave the theater cleansed of our lingering bitterness.