Sally Hawkins as Poppy, the cheerful teacher in Mike Leigh's comedy. (By Simon Mein -- Miramax Films Via Associated Press)
What would Poppy do?
That's the question that will inspire audiences fortunate enough to meet this year's most unforgettable and even revolutionary screen protagonist. Played by the radiant Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh's comedy "Happy-Go-Lucky," Poppy emerges as an altogether new kind of heroine at a time when -- in Hollywood, at least -- violence, bleakness and pessimism are continually confused with moral seriousness. Observed with insight and compassion by Leigh during a few weeks of her crammed and contented life, Poppy may first impress viewers as an irritating or lovable ditz, depending on their temperament. But as channeled by Hawkins in a performance bursting with insight and fizzy joie de vivre, Poppy gradually comes into her own as a character of rare depth, wisdom and even courage.
Personifying happiness as a hard-won philosophical stance in what Leigh proudly calls an "anti-miserablist film," Poppy may be just the woman to snap the cinema out of its love affair with gloom and doom.
But what would Poppy do now, confronted with Mike Leigh himself? The graying, bearded 65-year-old filmmaker rests his face in one hand, his eyebrow raised in what looks like perpetual skepticism (or just irritation), having burrowed into a hotel easy chair at the Toronto International Film Festival. He's made one of the most exuberant, exhilarating films of his career -- which has included such realist dramas as "Life Is Sweet," "Secrets & Lies," "Naked" and "Career Girls" -- and yet he's downright tetchy, pouncing on whatever his interlocutor has failed adequately to comprehend about his film, his career or life itself.
"The truth of it is, it's not about happiness or joy as such," he interrupts when a reporter calls "Happy-Go-Lucky" an ode to joy. "It's actually about fulfillment. It's actually about honesty. It's about dealing with life. It's about looking things in the eye, it's about acting according to your principles, it's about learning how to enjoy life in a real sense. It's about giving and taking and about not being judgmental and about understanding. But really, it's about fulfillment."
Leigh sinks deeper into his chair, burying his chin further into his hand. There goes the eyebrow again. What would Poppy do? Argue? Bite back? No, she'd probably shrug, give a compassionate laugh and maybe a gently sarcastic aside, and let Leigh off the hook with an understanding "bless 'im" (as in, "He probably hasn't had enough sleep, bless 'im" or "Must be hard answering the same bloody questions all day cooped up in a beige hotel room, bless 'im"). Then she'd move on.
That briefly encapsulates the worldview and modus operandi that have served Poppy well for 30 years or so, during which time she's become a schoolteacher in North London. She shares a flat with a roommate she adores named Zoe (played in a fabulous screen debut by Alexis Zegerman), she loves going to pubs and dancing with her mates and little sister, she enjoys jumping on the trampoline and even when she throws her back out, she flirts with the hunky osteopath. She takes a few flamenco classes (with a fiery teacher played by the scene-stealing Karina Fernandez). But the eternal sunshine of Poppy's mind isn't entirely spotless: When her bicycle is stolen, she signs up for driving lessons with a saturnine instructor named Scott (Eddie Marsan), whose explosive temper and fulminating conspiracy theories eventually put Poppy's good cheer to the ultimate test.
Because of its big, color-saturated look, effervescent tone and humor that ranges from subtle to uproarious, "Happy-Go-Lucky" has been called a departure for Leigh. After all, his most recent film, 2004's "Vera Drake," was about a woman providing illegal abortions in postwar London. But -- not surprisingly -- he rejects the Mike-Leigh-has-gone-warm-and-fuzzy analysis.
"Here's a description of Poppy," Leigh says. "Warm, generous, giving, puts herself out for other people, cares for other people, sense of humor. That is also a description of Vera Drake. And that film had great warmth. . . . I've calculated that I've done 500 characters [over the years], all kinds of people, seen from all kinds of angles and certainly sympathetically and with warmth. Having said all of that, of course, every time I make a film I deliberately and consciously [do] something new. When I invite you out to dinner, I'm not going to dish up the same meal."
As larky and carefree as Poppy is throughout "Happy-Go-Lucky," she's no airhead or superficial naif. Indeed, as the movie deepens and darkens, she's revealed to be a character of unusual strength and self-awareness. And, considering Hollywood's recent bleak-equals-deep aesthetic bent, Leigh has done a genuinely radical thing in giving happiness its own moral weight, imbuing it with narrative tension and pride of place more often reserved for dark spectacles and nihilistic tragedies. One of the most fascinating things about "Happy-Go-Lucky" is how it confronts viewers with their own expectations that happiness will be punished, as they find themselves waiting for the inevitable shoe to drop.
To this, Leigh offers begrudging agreement, noting that audiences are "hard wired" by Hollywood to expect the worst. "Look, I've done my fair share of dealing with pain and violence," he says. "But in this case I decided, okay, now's the time to do a film that is celebratory and upbeat and comic. . . . You know, we can really wring our hands now as we look at the world in 2008. But people get on with it, especially teachers. And they're nourishing the future, cherishing kids. That's got to be an act of positivism and of optimism by very definition."
Talk turns to the future -- Leigh is "desperate" to do a film about the painter J.M.W. Turner, but he can't find the funding. As the conversation winds down, an observation is proffered that he's seemed a bit impatient over the course of the encounter. "No, I'm not," he says, his voice rising. "I don't know why you say that. I'm not impatient, I'm not overworked, I haven't done this very much and it's all fine."
The eyebrow is raised again, this time playfully. Maybe he isn't jet-lagged, or bored. Maybe the grumpy-artist act has been a put-on for a stranger's benefit. Maybe Mike Leigh, who has made the movies safe for laughter again, has been having a laugh all along. Bless 'im.
Happy-Go-Lucky (118 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row) is rated R for profanity.