Usually bleak Leigh shows a more optimistic side

PUBLISHED: 16:21 23 April 2008 | UPDATED: 14:59 07 September 2010

Happy-go-lucky (15) Director Mike Leigh Starring Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Samuel Roukin, Sylvestra La Touzel 118 mins Three star rating The essence of Mike Leigh s 10th movie comes in it first scene. Poppy (Hawkins) enters a quiet boo

Happy-go-lucky (15) Director Mike Leigh

Starring Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Samuel Roukin, Sylvestra La Touzel

118 mins

Three star rating

The essence of Mike Leigh's 10th movie comes in it first scene. Poppy (Hawkins) enters a quiet bookshop whose only other occupant is a handsome young man behind the counter.

Immediately commenting on how quiet it is, she tries to engage the man in conversation about the weather and his hat.

She eventually succeeds in getting him to say a single word, before retreating and finding that the bike she rode there on had been nicked.

I think the world divides up into people who side with her unpretentious, chirpy friendliness and people who side with the poor bloke who has to put up with this silly woman wittering on.

As with most Leigh films, Happy-Go-Lucky is pure cinematic Marmite.

The screening I attended was like a First World War battlefield with bursts of delighted titters from the west being countered with an aggressive parry of derisive sighs to the east and occasionally laughter exploding right in the middle.

For those of you who are waverers in these matters, I should warn you that the film it most closely resembles is Career Girls, generally held to be the most annoying of his films.

Poppy is a single 30-year-old primary school teacher who faces up to the rigours of life in London with a relentless optimism.

As in the opening scene in the bookshop, the film is set up as a tussle between the open caring femininity and self-destructive, angry masculinity, represented by pent-up, paranoid, racist and sexist driving instructor Scott (Marsan).

You may not really buy into this optimism but there's something enormously encouraging about a film-maker who is still trying to be positive without shying away from the realities of city life.

Although the decks are heavily stacked in the central match-up between Poppy and Scott, the film still feels non-judgemental and open.

Leigh roles take some pulling off and, for this film, he is without any of the British thespian elite who usually fill his casts - and some of the supporting performances were a bit flat.

Hawkins will get lots of attention but the stand-out is Marsen.

If he hasn't already, this should secure his position in the pantheon of quality British character actors alongside the likes of Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall or Mark Benton.

All film-making, even that undertaken by control freaks like Kubrick, is a leap of faith. But Leigh's method of building characters and scenes from improvisation with the actors means he's more of a hit and hope merchant than most.

The results this time include moments that are like nails scraping a blackboard, but there are just as many which make you appreciate what a treasure he is.

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