One of the things I like most about Mike Leigh’s movies is I never know where they’re going. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is no exception.
It got me from the opening credits with lightly swinging (early) ‘60s upbeat pop movie music under partial screen shots of Sally Hawkins as “Poppy” riding her bicycle through the streets of an English seaside city (I don’t know them well enough to know which, maybe it was just parts of London that aren’t iconic).
With the bright colors and the fizzy music, the opening felt like a set up for one of those light French romantic comedies. In fact the whole premise of the film could have become AMELIE like. The mood was so unlike a Mike Leigh movie, even if I hadn’t heard that this was some kind of departure, it was immediately obvious.
But then, every movie he’s made has been some kind of departure from what his previous movies portend. And this was no exception.
But the subject matter does at first seem new for Leigh. Because the subject is happiness. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is a deep attempt to get at what it means to be happy, especially in the face of so much that tries to counter it.
As always, Leigh gets greatest performances from his actors, especially from the lead, Sally Hawkins. What a revelation she is, and what a brave performance, as almost all are in a Leigh movie, because of the intense way he “writes” a film.
My old friend Hubert Selby used to talk about how in his fiction he would create a character and it would tell him where the story was going. A lot of fiction writers say that. They create a character and suddenly their creation has a mind of its own and determines the storyline for the author rather than vice versa.
Leigh uses a similar technique in making his movies. He creates the characters—with the help of the actors—and has the actors become the characters as much as humanly possible before even beginning to settle on what the characters will be doing let alone saying.
I first heard about his radically unique way of creating a movie from Gary Oldman after a star studded Hollywood party when I was still living and working out there. A handful of us were still standing in the wee hours after most of the rich and famous had left, or rather we were sitting on our hostess’s couches and easy chairs in one of many rooms in her Hollywood hills house.
Somehow Oldman got around (I’m not trying to impress you, this is the only time I met him and I was only there because I was good friends with our hostess, in fact, at this party another seemingly anonymous person, the only other one as far as I could tell at the party, approached me and asked “Who are you?” and then wanted to know what I was doing there when she didn’t recognize my name and I said I was a poet who acted in films and on TV (which I did at the time) for my day job and was friends with our hostess—then I asked who are you? And she told me, the daughter of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and a really great person who I saw around now and then after that party and was always happy to see) to sharing his first experience with Leigh, which may have been his, Oldman’s, first movie (though it may have been originally for the BBC).
At any rate, Oldman said Leigh had him become the character and stay in character for months before any filming actually began, with Oldman living in his character’s apartment/set built in an old warehouse, and he told of going to buy a pick up some groceries and coming around an aisle in the market and catching Leigh spying on him to see if he was still in character.
It certainly works. Sally Hawkins IS “Poppy” in ways that make the movie almost seem like a documentary. And what an incredible character she and Leigh have created. It’s worth the price of admission just to watch and listen to her. But it’s worth even more to experience the ways in which Leigh keeps you, or at least me, off balance through the whole film waiting to see if reality will diminish the bright soul that “Poppy” is, or is determined to be.
By the ending, I felt like Leigh had anticipated the direction the world seems to be yearning to take in the face of so much bad news—choose happiness, and stick to the choice no matter what.