May 29th 2022

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) is a fun movie about feelings, but that doesn’t mean it’s light fare. Poppy Cross, a character developed in collaboration with actress Sally Hawkins, is a thirty-year-old elementary school teacher living in working-class London whose optimism makes her a pointed inversion of the typical social realist anti-hero. Her upbeat mood appears to be largely out of sync with the times—as she moves through her world, her positivity lifts the spirits of her fellow teachers who can’t afford mortgages, bounces off a bored bookstore clerk, and stirs up resentment in her sister who has retired to suburban adulthood. Poppy seems genuinely content to nurture her friendships, wear splashy clothes thrifted in Camden, invent creative projects for her students, and headbang to Pulp’s “Common People” on weekends.

Poppy is buoyed by the belief that she can really help people, so instead of waiting to see what makes her tick, we are bracing for the moment when she must draw boundaries between herself and those she cannot help. When she throws her back out in her weekly trampoline class, she takes up flamenco dancing with a fiercely passionate teacher. At first, Poppy’s natural affect doesn’t quite suit the bold, romantic gestures, but as she works at it she gains a new kind of confidence. Central to the story are Poppy’s driving lessons with an angry conspiracy theorist who makes everything more complicated by using the Eye of Providence as a teaching device. Poppy sticks with it for weeks, deflecting his rants (and spittle) with humor and wisecracks within the claustrophobic car, even as he has her drive recklessly through posh London neighborhoods whose homes are out of reach on his gig-workers’ salary. These scenes were shot with cameras mounted inside the car, so that every jolt and turn flows naturally with the dialogue, letting the viewer in on the passenger’s complete loss of control.

In the Mike Leigh tradition, Happy-Go-Lucky is populated entirely by character actors who have spent six months improvising together in rehearsals, and the resulting tightly scripted narrative is completely driven by them. This makes his films feel like small worlds, immersed in the dense texture of everyday life. Leigh has worked with the same cinematographer (Dick Pope) for decades, but he made the choice to shoot Happy-Go-Lucky on a Fujifilm stock called “Vivid” in order to align with Poppy’s worldview: that you can understand why people behave the way they do, if you are able to look hard enough.

Happy-Go-Lucky screens tonight, May 29, and on June 3, in 35mm at Film at Lincoln Center, part of the series “Human Conditions: The Films of Mike Leigh.”