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August 31, 2008
Happy-Go-Lucky(2008): Mike Leigh
Trailer for Happy-Go-Lucky from YouTube
I have just got the DVD of this film and sadly I wasn't too impressed despite generally liking the films of Mike Leigh. I have included a short synopsis of the reviews of other critics reactions to the film's theatrical release and have saved my own brief review until the end.
Synopis and Comment
Mike Leigh's latest film Happy-Go-Lucky is now on general release. It has proved successful in the recent Berlin film festival with Sally Hawkins who plays the lead role of Poppy picking up a Silver Bear. The film is promoted as a comedy drama which focuses upon the character of Poppy a London based 30 year old single primary school teacher. Poppy is a a cosmopolitan urbanite who takes life lightly but seriously. In fact she is "absurdly cheery" (McNab) in the face of life's minor set-backs such as getting her bicycle stolen. (Surely not a reference to Bicycle Thieves.)
Despite this 'comic' (idiotic?) side to her and the ability to be comic in the face of adversity is balanced with her commitment to good teaching and a stated concern about issues such as children 'playing too much on video-games' (Hopefully Leigh isn't contributing to moral panics about children's media consumption here).
Dave Calhoun in a Sight and Sound feature (May 08) has commented that Poppy, the central character of the film, needs to be analysed in relation to the Zeitgeist when as viewers we consider her actions and behaviour. He quotes an interview with Mike Leigh:
I don't think Happy-Go-Lucky is any less political than my other films... its as much about dealing with life and coping with issues as anything I've made.
If it is a Zeitgeist film Leigh would argue it represents a humanistic solidarity with fellow beings at a time when in a post-political (in a party sense) world there is little else one can do. After all it's hard to rise above the cynicism and disappointment displayed by an older man of late sixties in the bank in front of me expressing his horror at how the banks had been bailed out by a Labour government of all things. Well Poppy is clearly a survivor in a topsy turvy world. Calhoun describes Poppy as:
...a modern, urban woman, as comfortable with her friends as with her family, able to balance pleasure with work, and confidant in being single while retaining romantic ideals.
Importantly Calhoun is pointing out that underneath Poppy's extremely lively 'in yer face' character there is an issue of whether she is repressing something or trying to compensate for a fundamental insecurity. Many critics have described this as a comedy and then argued that this is a change of heart from Leigh who is often held up as a "miserablist".
Leigh comments that the structure is different to his other films in that there is really no parallel narrative unfolding:
The only thing that makes this film unique apart from two tiny scenes, there's no parallel action. The entire action focuses on what's happening to Poppy, whereas even in Naked there's a lot going on with other characters.
This change in narrative structuring is a significant break from Leigh's normal working practices where he tends to work in a semi-improvised way with the actors who are often only introduced to the turns in events in the story as they would happen to the character in real life. It is an important break for as Leigh points out:
Rather than a causal narrative, here I'm more concerned with a cumulative narrative that evokes an atmosphere and evokes Poppy's spirit.
The review in Sight and Sound by Geoffrey McNab makes the important comparison between the picture postcard London promoted by Working Title produced films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral or Notting Hill. Unlike these films Leigh notes the racism and also the racial and ethnic complexity of London. This makes a film which is giving a more honest representation of Britain rather than being a film which is a cultured British pearl for the American market, this is 'True Grit' one might say.
McNab makes a comparison between the permanently ebullient Poppy and Vera Drake in Leigh's film Vera Drake. For him there is a certain näivety yet ability to empathise with people common to both characters. At the same time Poppy appears to want to avoid responsibility. This is sharply pointed up when her pregnant sister Helen who is less than satisfied with her lot pressurises Poppy about marriage and a family: Poppy though, is having none of it. This would appear to be the Zeitgeist, if you can't change much better to think about the present than the future. Is this a Leigh critique of the postmodern condition?
Not everybody agrees with David Calhoun's interpretations of Mike Leigh and his approaches to this film and others in his oeuvre. The 'Letter of the Month' in the July issue of Sight and Sound is scathingly critical of Leigh:
Happy Go Lucky is about as accurate a study of British society as Four Weddings and a Funeral (David Secombe Sight & Sound July 2008 p 96)
Secombe continues arguing that Leigh is a middle class film maker making films for the middle classes. He bases the argument on the notions that Poppy is nothing like any primary school teacher despite the fact that:
...her overall presentation is intrinsically immature and occasionally suggests that she may be in need of remedial attention herself.
After spending some time commenting on what a change this makes for Mike Leigh the "miserabilist" the Channel Four reviewer sees the film in a rather less misanthropic light:
Poppy is the perfect primary school teacher. Her character's realism is found in memories of that supply teacher everyone once had, when their regular and boring teacher got pregnant or went to Pompeii, the one who let you do projects on space aliens and collect woodlice. Yet somehow you remember every word she said while the rest of those years are a Tudors-and-fractions blur.
The Telegraph reviewer argues that:
Leigh [admits that he] set himself a challenge: to make Poppy initially irritating, and then to allow her goodness to win audiences round. He embarks on this task subtly.
The divergence of opinions can perhaps be put down to everybody's memories of primary school teachers. Remember to bring yur memories with you when you get to the the film. I can't say I've really considere Leigh as a miserabilist anyway rather more an astutue observer who works in a sort of 'tragicomedy of the quotidian'.
When it come to thinking about the state of British cinema in general the interview with Calhoun ends with some thoughts about what Leigh would like to make in the future. He expresses frustration with the fact that he can only access budgets of 5-6 million. Talking about a desire to use a larger canvas his metaphor becomes very obvious when he talks about wishing to make a film about Turner, nobody, he says is interested. He admits that his ways of working haven't proved attractive to financiers and here one is remonded of Godard's Le Mepris with its ironic critique of an American producer trying to work in sex at the right point to make the film sell. Godard's film of course ended up a long way from what was being expected by his producers.
Strange that in these days when appaerently the notion of 'cultural industries' is accompanied by notions of getting British identity up and running again that it appears to be impossible for a well respected film maker to be able to make a film about an iconic and extremly important painter. Turner certainly preceded the French Impressionists when is came to being modern as he applied some of Goethe's theories of colour into his work amongst other things but then of course the Olympics in already into its expected tripled cost overrun, which will doubtless keep the consultants happy if not the taxpayer. As for Mike Leigh making a film on Turner.....
Special Preview Performance Q & A with Mike Leigh on Happy-go-Lucky
Having summarised some of the issues around Happy-go-Lucky identified by other reviewers when the film had a thaetrical release I have now had a chance to view the recently released DVD. I must say I found the film extremely disappointing. Admittedly I have high expectations for mike Leigh films and Abigail's Party (TV Play), Meantime, Secrets and Lies & Vera Drake are outstanding examples of his oeuvre over the years. This film bored and irritated me in roughly equal amounts.
There were some splendid examples of Leigh at his best when he brings a sense of shock to the actors which tranmits itself onto the screen because of the way he works. The Flamenco teacher was splendid, the scene at the house of Poppy's sister Helen worked brilliantly and the Eddie Marsden driving instructor was generally excellent.
By comparison the character of Poppy quite simply didn't add up. There is a difference between being 'happy-go-lucky' and a complete airhead. For most of the film Poppy was a complete immature airhead. There was a clear disjunction between Poppy as represented in her professional life as a primary school teacher and her life outside. There has been much made of Poppy's warmth, empathy etc by Leigh & Hawkins in interviews on the DVD as well as by some of the reviewers above. I totally don't buy into this idea at all.
Poppy is intensely irritating, unserious in terms of her own future and unserious when she takes the role of a student. She is a total clown in both the Flamenco class and in the driving lessons. Far from being warm and empathetic she is totally self-obsessed and I find it hard to disagree with the comments from the letter of the month in Sight and Sound
...her overall presentation is intrinsically immature and occasionally suggests that she may be in need of remedial attention herself.
Whilst Leigh makes a virtue of there being non-parallel actions within the narrative and a lack of causality this would be fine if the scenes such as the one with the tramp actually advanced some depth of character. The scene with the tramp is totally artificial. Poppy is going down a rough looking street at night and then hears some drunken singing offscreen. she follows this sound into a derelict factory which is apparently open to all the world and finds a tramp behind a pillar. no-one in thier right mind would have domne this in the first place as it wouldn't have been possible to see properly. Later in the scene after the tramp has changed positions there appear to security lights blasting out in the same derelict factory. OK so McNab's point that this isn't the tourist gaze of London is correct but this representation of the seamy side doesn't really come across well.
From the outset Poppy is the sort of person you want to shake some sense into. Her visit to the bookshop in the opening scenes represents her as a complete idiot. She displayed no interest in any books whatsoever and seemed intent on trying out some light flirting with the bloke running the shop who was entirely bored by her. Poppy's playing with chicken fillets as breast enhancers with her mates after the night club when they carried on drinking to the point of stupefaction is clearly what we expect from 30 year old professionals. What was more astounding if not surrealistic was the ability of her and her friends to make miraculous recoveries after a heavy night. Poppy was a complete idiot when she got into the car for the first time with the driving instructor and carried on being an idiot. Poppy was also a complete clown when she turned up at the Flamenco sessions. This kind of a approach is unlikely to say the least from someone who is a practitioner in the educational system. She was behaving throughout like an immature office worker with no education at all and flirting with all and sundry. Had she not been a primary school teacher then the character added up, but Leigh by wanting to have it both ways and giving Poppy hidden depths in her professional life ends with a character that makes it impossible to suspend disbelief. Meet her in a pub and you'd probably be bored out of your head in two minutes. No she wasn't a malicious character but so what?
Even when there is a danger of Poppy entering serious discussions, such as when discussing the issue of children and video games or issues of parental responsibility for their children after a hard day at work, she skims the surface. The scene in Helen's house was sterotypical in terms of its content, with the sort of sharp binary positions being displayed which might have shocked in a 1960s play but just seem old hat nowadays. Poppy defends her freedoms from being tied down with a house and children against her sister who seems to be stuck out in an amorphous suburbia and is nearly 9 months pregnant. Helen is even made to act like a 70 something year old as is made up and dressed in an appropriate manner which again just didn't gel. Poppy even scorns a pension, except that as a teacher she would get a pension deducted from her salary anyway. Inexact detail lke this irritated.
In the past Leigh has been a master at creating quirky characters but believable ones not -as a correspondent in the September letters column of Sight and Sound suggests - surreal characters. People do not behave like automatons and Leigh has brought out this aspect of life significantly in the past. Leigh is associated with realism rather than naturalism but it has been a realism at the micro level which has focused upon the the dynamics of relationships between people and their individual choices rather than a realism such as Loach's which is always trying to strip bare the surface of the social world and identify and challenge what the structuring agencies within society are.
For me Poppy just didn't add up as a character. Her liberal ideas seemed to be without foundation and it is hard to believe that a person who had worked her way around the World as a teacher with sessions in Vietnam and sometimes classes of 60 wouldn't by the age of 30 have some deeper things to say. At times too there was a sort of faux-naivety in her dealings with other people. Far form being warm and empathetic she totally fails to understand the driving instructor, and the scene with the physiotherapist was ridiculous. Her flirty innuendos are fine coming from an 18 year old but they just made Poppy look stupid. Does the argument that Leigh is a surrealist save this film by giving it a different reading? I don't think so. Certainly Leigh is able to appreciate the surreality of the quotidian but the defense that Leigh and Hawkins put up in defence of Poppy's character scupper this idea from the outset.
In the end this film was disappointing and frequently bordered on the vacuous despite being interspersed with some good sections. The films of Leigh's that I'm familair with and mentioned above are far more worthwhile and it is worth adding High Hopes to the list as well. I'm a little surprised that the reviewers have been as soft on the film as they have. Maybe I'm turning into a complete misanthrope but I can't remember anything in it which struck me as funny. This isn't to say that there wasn't an enormous amount of skill and effort involved. Hawkins was great at making you sqirm, its just that the character as originally conceived didn't gel leaving an impossible task for the actor. There is nothing very satisfactory in this film in terms of the relationships. The central interaction between Poppy and the driving instructor was also difficult to buy into, if you have ever actually taught anybody to drive. The best one can say of this was that it was a representation of post-modern pap skimming the surface and skittering onto the next thing, certainly it lacked depth despite sympathetic reviewers trying to root it out. There are quite literally hundreds of good films to see and spend time and money on, sadly this wasn't one of them.
Independent review Johnathan Romney
Independent Sarah Sands on Happy-Go-Lucky
BBC on Happy-Go-Lucky with video interview available.