This was actually the first Mike Leigh film I saw at the cinema and I absolutely loved it, so it was interesting revisiting it on DVD, especially so in the context of his other films. To my eye Happy-Go-Lucky sticks out as being a bit different to the others, and not just because it doesn’t feature Lesley Manville (or Imelda Staunton for that matter), but because its general aesthetic feels in a different key.
Sally Hawkins’ Poppy is a permanently chirpy primary school teacher whose life we follow throughout the film and though Hawkins is exceptional, as ever is the way of things with me, it is the second female lead that really grabs me and it is Alexis Zegerman’s Zoe Poppy’s best friend and flatmate that really wins me over with her drawled-out, deadpan delivery proving surprisingly alluring. That said, there is endless comedy gold in Hawkins’ face throughout the film, whether trampolining, the reactions to having her back massaged to find out where some pain is coming from, or responding to Flamenco teacher’s request, it is just beautiful to watch.
It’s not all happy happy joy joy though and in encounters with various men, we see how Poppy deals with difficulties. A burgeoning romance with Samuel Roukin’s child psychologist starts in a tricky way as he comes in to investigate potential child abuse at her school but soon turns into something really sweet. And her driving lessons with Eddie Marsan’s Scott which provide the central focus of the film offer a compelling portrait of frustrated white working-class masculinity which teeters on the edge of real danger.
As ever, there’s an absolute wealth of theatrical cameos to give anyone a thrill. The film opens with Poppy entering a bookshop run by a growly, near-silent Elliot Cowan; her night out includes Andrea Riseborough and Sinéad Matthews, the latter in retrospect putting in a decent audition for Ecstasy by all accounts; Stanley Townsend makes a terrifying tramp in an odd fantasy-like scene; it’s always a joy to see Sylvestra Le Touzel, especially in a modern role, and she’s ace here as a teacher colleague and I just love Karina Fernandez’s epic fiery flamenco teacher.
Sadly, I didn’t love the film quite as much on second viewing. The slightly fantastical nature of some of the scenes didn’t quite sit right – the final confrontational doesn’t feel right, especially given Poppy’s (lack of) reaction to it and I’m not sure the film sustains the trip to visit another sister Helen by the seaside very well, the shift of locale not working for me and not adding anything by having Helen be so extremely different in nature. But I’d say it is definitely worth the watch for Hawkins and Zegerman, and Le Touzel, and Cowan. 😉