Film Reviews


By • Nov 9th, 2008 •

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I kept hoping Miss Happy-Go-Lucky would get cancer.

“W” magazine ran a story on HAPPY-GO-LUCKY instant star Sally Hawkins. Regarding director/writer Mike Leigh’s famous directing style, “” said: “In this case he had Hawkins construct Poppy from birth, getting the actress into character as a baby and later introducing Poppy to her younger sisters as they, in turn, joined the family as newborns.”

Can you imagine what those 6 months of rehearsal sessions were like?

Did Poppy poop in her diaper or cry from colic for 5 hours? That’s what I would have done to be true to my construction of Poppy as a baby. And then I would have tried to kill the unnecessary intruders for my mother’s love, my baby sisters!

In American society, you better have a good reason to be happy. Having a job and a place to live just isn’t enough.

There is no written script, though Leigh is rather adamant about his process. No one really likes improvised movies. Leigh insists his style is highly structured. After actors spend a lot of time improvising, he selects what he wants and then gets a script supervisor in to record it. “What’s great about Mike is you’re never allowed to see the script written down,” Hawkins says. “You have to know it emotionally rather than knowing it intellectually.” Yep, typing a script, having others judge it, and getting notes from producers, is a real drag on an artist’s creativity.

That all said, I loved Leigh’s VERA DRAKE.

I do not know anybody like Poppy (Sally Hawkins). Maybe they are out there, but they stay clear of me. Poppy giggles, laughs, and doesn’t see anything, even a mishap, as a problem. This is clearly shown in the first scene. Someone steals Poppy’s bicycle. Her response, “Oh, I never got to say goodbye.”

We don’t know why Poppy is the way she is. Certainly her two younger sisters are not like her. Poppy lives with her long-term best friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman). She works as a schoolteacher. The most adventurous thing she does is sign up for a flamenco class with a fellow schoolteacher. If Leigh needs another muse, why not the emotionally high-strung flamenco teacher (Karina Fernandez)? She was the only one in HAPPY-GO-LUCKY who had passion and drama.

Without her bicycle, Poppy decides she will learn how to drive, and accepts a cut-rate driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), as her teacher. If Poppy would cringe at anyone, it is Scott. He is anal-retentive, clinically depressed, suicidal, and perhaps a maniac. But, Poppy sees the good and fun in everything. However she never listens to him and will not wear proper flats for driving. She looks good in her heeled boots! It makes Scott crazy! He has a strict driving process and demands Poppy follow all his rules. After a movie filled with these driving lessons, even I know, by heart, Scott’s pyramid!

Herein lies the flaw in Leigh’s directing style. If what happens depends on the actors improvising, should Scott take it upon himself to crash the car or take Poppy to a field and rape her? Where should the actor take the role? Instead, they squabble over and over again. Without a writer and production team setting things up, these two have nowhere to go but literally around and around in circles.

So life hasn’t crushed Poppy’s cheerfulness. But how would her sunny disposition affect Zoe and her friends when she skips off and marries? With Poppy not seeing the downside of anything, she lacks hope and dreams.

Hawkins is being hailed as the next great actress and she does give Poppy a complete personality without making her just a silly idiot. But, people like Poppy get in all sorts of trouble. They lose things, give their rent money away, and are always losing jobs. They are burdens on their friends. But Hawkins’s Poppy is a self-contained, untroubled free spirit and this makes her very likeable.

How would Poppy handle a crisis? We don’t know because the non-script never gave her one!

Poppy has one of those wardrobes that you only see in movies. London looks great and a real, ordinary place to live. If this Poppy were around, I’d avoid her because she’d always need help and cash.

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One Response »

  1. The movie gives her two clear crises: 1) the class bully, and 2) when the driving instructor loses it. She notices the young boy play-fighting with another kid at recess, and then notices it again and breaks it up. And then what does she do? She reacts in a way that we never see schoolteachers react in the movies: she sees things from all sides, and understands that she’ll be much more useful to the boy if she doesn’t discipline him in the same-old same-old predictable way. She understands that kids like that probably have something else going on that is causing them to behave that way. A good teacher would do what she did, while a lesser teacher would have simply punished the kid in some stupid way, while not making anything better. It’s because of her actions that maybe this kid will be able to turn things around and have a chance.

    The scenes with the driving instructor progress a little bit more every time we see them. Poppy is using irreverance and irony to get to the instructor, because she senses right away that he’s a malcontent. So what does she do? She plays like she anti-authority by pretending to be flighty and dumb, but did you notice how she listens and regards him at times? She knows him already. She’s met that kind of guy before. And when he crosses the line, she steps right up to the plate and is ready to fight.

    In both of those scenarios, she does precisely the right thing, by using empathy to help the child, and then by standing up for herself to the driving instructor, even though she was complicit in baiting him.

    I had to write in because first of all, being flip about cancer isn’t very classy, and second, your review appears to show a remarkable lack of curiosity in human behavior. “We don’t know why Poppy is the way she is?”, you asked. Does everything in the world need an explanation? Aren’t most people the way they are because they are the way they are?

    Your life would be far richer with a Poppy in it, since she’s a wonderfully curious human being who is open to many experiences, and who uses her humor and irreverance wisely in order to cover the realist underneath.

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