Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Freaks of Nature, Freakishly Good

By Josh R
When it comes to the men and women who make the movies, history insists that there is no such thing as a sure thing. Not even the most gifted and influential of the lot — be it Hitchcock, Truffaut, Hawks, Scorsese, Bergman, fill in the blanks as you may — can lay claim to an unblemished record. Only so much of this can be attributed to age and the law of diminishing returns; Hitchcock’s late-career films may not have been as good as his earlier ones, but then, he made The Paradine Case within a year of Notorious (it didn’t help). Perhaps there’s some truth to the notion that talent is a constant; be that as it may, its application is a hit-or-miss proposition, and quality is often difficult, if not impossible, to sustain.

All of this goes to suggest that Mike Leigh — the standard bearer in the world of British independent filmmaking for more than two decades now — might be something of a freak of nature. It is true that some of his films, most of which favor a style based heavily in improvisation, have been more kindly received than others (and only 2002’s All or Nothing, it should be noted, sank upon arrival on these shores without a trace). Speaking only for myself, I have never come away from one of his films feeling disappointed, short-changed, or simply wondering what in hell the nutty old bloke could have possibly been thinking when he embarked upon the enterprise.

It is entirely possible — nay, even probable — that the law of averages will catch up to Mr. Leigh sooner or later. As of this writing, it has not; his latest film more than ably demonstrates that he still knows exactly what he’s doing, and exactly how to get it done. Lighter-than-air in most respects, the aptly-titled Happy-Go-Lucky lacks the emotional punch of his best films — but even as a minor entry in the Leigh canon, it keeps the streak alive, and the laws of probability confounded.

Unlike some of his more recent films — most memorably 2004’s Vera Drake, a devastating account of a mid-20th century abortionist being crushed underfoot by a hypocritical establishment — Happy-Go-Lucky is a throwback to the small scale, character-driven films on which Leigh first made his reputation. As in Life is Sweet and High Hopes, the film is almost entirely character-driven, as opposed to taking shape around a cut-and-dried narrative structure. What we see is a series of vignettes fashioned around the character of Poppy (an effervescent Sally Hawkins), a resolutely cheerful young woman who teaches primary school in a working class neighborhood. The film observes her in her everyday life: chatting up strangers, hanging out with her mates, attempting to keep a straight face during physical therapy sessions and flamenco classes, dealing with a school bully, visiting her married sister in the suburbs, enjoying a flirtation with a charming social worker, and gamely taking lessons from an unctuous driving instructor. While it may be tempting to regard the approach as haphazard — and I suppose that with no plot to speak of, the film is lacking something in terms of shape — as in the more overtly schematic Vera Drake, everything in Happy-Go-Lucky is geared to a purpose. A kindred spirit to Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Poppy is the kind of eternally optimistic, unostentatiously decent sort of “little” person who comes face to face with the evils and indignities of the world; while appraising them with an astonishingly clear eye, she refuses to succumb to bitterness, anger or despair. Some of the things that she confronts in her travels are horrible, indeed — an instance of brutal abuse wreaking havoc on the delicate psyche of a child, a disoriented derelict who talks in streams of gibberish, and some genuinely harrowing glimpses into the damaged soul of Scott (the excellent Eddie Marsan), the driving instructor whose smudgy outbursts of rage eventually fix upon Poppy as their object. The heroine registers her encounters with all of these people — lost, drifting figures in the sad, confused parade of human suffering — with a mix of compassion, sorrow, and occasional bewilderment, but without allowing it to dampen her naturally sanguine outlook or her essential faith in the existence of goodness. Even when bleak realities of life threaten to engulf and extinguish her tiny beam of light, she manages to keep aloft above the waves. She’s not just a glass-is-half-full person; against all odds, her cup runneth over.

I will confess that for the few minutes or so, I couldn’t help wondering if that indefatigable buoyancy of spirit would become grating in the extreme. The opening sequence of the film shows our clean-scrubbed heroine chirpily trying to engage an unresponsive bookstore clerk in conversation — as she forges breezily ahead in her attempts, completely undaunted by his silence, you think “Oh God, not one of these.” (Unflagging perkiness is fine for morning talk-show hostesses, but nobody wants to encounter anyone who can approximate that quality in real life.) Any misgivings were swept aside fairly quickly, due in no small part to the warmth and originality Hawkins brings to the role; all toothy grins and jangly bracelets, she’s as endearingly quirky a presence as Diane Keaton was in her Annie Hall days, and her disarmingly self-deprecating charm and all-around averageness (that's meant as a compliment) gives the film an emotional honesty it couldn’t possibly have had with some airbrushed movie star dressing down and playing against type. As always, the strength of the film owes much to the director’s talent for casting. Leigh very astutely chooses unconventional performers who interpret their roles in highly individualized ways. The performances he draws from them are often heightened and exaggerated, but always in ways that feel completely authentic. More than any other director I can think of — save, perhaps, for Rossellini and De Sica — Leigh has always exhibited a genuine empathy for the working classes, and a natural affinity for the world in which they live. There is nothing condescending or romanticized about his attitudes; the slice-of-life he is serving up in Happy-Go-Lucky may cast a rosy glow, but it always feels true to life. A cynic might feel that people like Poppy are too good to be true; the actress and director are so keyed in to what makes her tick that the audience never questions the plausibility of her behavior and motives. Like Mike Leigh, Poppy is something of a freak of nature — just be glad that in a world of darkness, such freaks are still in evidence to provide rare glimpses of light.

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I've always had mixed reactions to Leigh films and this was no exception. However, I thought Eddie Marsan was great. I actually got impatient waiting between driving lessons.
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