September 30, 2009

Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky

(Sally Hawkins plays Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky.)

In Mike Leigh's 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky, actress Sally Hawkins plays Poppy, a 30-year-old primary school teacher living in London who is happy, all the time. The film is about nothing more, nothing less. Anyone reading this will undoubtedly wonder if they would be able to stomach such a film -- who can even begin to understand a character who is perpetually happy? But Hawkins brings Poppy to life in a way that is both believable and deeply human.

Poppy goofing around at school.

Films mining despair are a dime a dozen, yet happiness has never received the same kind of treatment. (Though no-one can be blamed for not trying.) Happiness in cinema is relegated to marking milestones, or emphasizing a character's high followed by a crushing low. Happy , sunny female characters in particular mostly inhabit romantic comedies, flashing goofy grins and giggling girlishly but rarely revealing any sort of emotional landscape.

Poppy cheerful in town.

Poppy definitely likes to smile, and she laughs frequently and raucously. She's quick with a joke, non-judgmental, and friendly to everyone. Hawkins is loose and natural, yet she has very carefully created a character whose happiness has no agenda, and is not a show. She's not some corny sap forever counting her blessings. She's not pretending to be happy while hiding a hideous past. She's not oblivious to the less-than-pleasant things in the world. She just is. So comfortable in her own skin is she, a younger sister who is married and pregnant is compelled to yell at her about pensions and babies and mortgages in an attempt to burst her bubble with reality. It doesn't really work.


It's a sink-or-swim performance, and Hawkins pulls it off with aplomb, bringing out all the different shadings of emotion manifest in happiness. Happy-Go-Lucky isn't the type of film that sprinkles fairy dust all over its viewers to leave them feeling warm and glowy. But its down-to-earth charms are perhaps more effective than old-fashioned movie magic: you walk away feeling that it's possible to try this at home.

No comments: