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Life becomes her

  • 26 June 2008
Happy-Go-Lucky: 118 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Mike Leigh. Starring: Sally Hawkins, Alexis Zegerman, Eddie Marsan

During a rare subdued scene in this colourful comedy, the effervescent heroine Poppy (Hawkins) encounters a homeless man under a bridge at night.

The derelict man is delusional and gibbering, yet where most people would react with fear or disdain, Poppy responds with empathy. She not only approaches but lingers to listen. She may not understand his words, but she perceives his hurt, and his need to be listened to.

It's a revelatory moment, occurring at the end of the first half of the film. Much of what has preceded it is upbeat and frivolous. This is the first indication that there's a darker subtext to UK writer-director Mike Leigh's chosen palette of humour and primary colours.

Poppy is endearing but sometimes infuriating. She has a kind word for everyone, and a grin and gleeful gasp for each sentence she utters. Thirty, single and with an almost-sickly positive outlook, primary school teacher Poppy trampolines for exercise and enjoys an alcohol-driven social life.

Her relationship with flatmate Zoe (Zegerman) epitomises her happy-go-lucky existence. Armed with Leigh's sparkling dialogue, Hawkins and Zegerman are a memorable double act, as Zoe's po-faced one-liners go beat-for-beat with Poppy's rapid-fire gags and guffaws. The ease of their coexistence makes for ecstatic viewing.

Poppy's married and pregnant younger sister Helen (Caroline Martin) provides a point of contrast for Poppy's unfettered lifestyle. Helen lectures Poppy on the lack of structure in her life, but a moment later expresses resentment toward her own idyllic suburban life.

But her words don't indict either lifestyle. They reveal Helen's own insecurities. The tension between personal and social expectations about how best to live emerges as a key theme in the film, particularly in relation to the idea of being an adult, and the versions of 'adultness' people embrace.

This is played out most dramatically in the antagonistic relationship Poppy shares with her recently acquired driving instructor, Scott (Marsan).

Grumpy and opinionated, Scott initially seems to play the straight man to Poppy's easygoing humour. They rub each other the wrong way, and as the film progresses and some of its more serious subtexts emerge, the friction leads to emotional broken skin and eruptions.

Scott has cast himself as a rebel, critic and prophet, raging against the oppressions of society while proving to be a most fascist driving instructor.