Writer/Director Mike Leigh has been in the entertainment business for more than forty years. He studied theatre at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and did his early acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He began his career as a theater director and playwright in the 1960’s. By the 1970’s, he made a transition to television plays, which were characterized by a kind of gritty realism that he would become known for when he began making theatrical films. Leigh’s most notable works include, Naked (1993) for which he won the Best Director award at Cannes, the BAFTA-winning (and Oscar-nominated) Palme d’Or winner Secrets & Lies (1996) and Vera Drake (2004).

Happy-Go-LuckyWith his latest film Happy-Go-Lucky, Leigh avoids the heavy darkness of many of his projects and instead focuses on a young woman who refuses to accept the gloom and doom of a given day. Sally Hawkins (Vera Drake, Layer Cake) plays Poppy Cross, a thirty-year-old primary school teacher with an incredibly sunny personality. Blessed with limitless energy, she walks with a bounce in her step and always has a smile on her face. A believer in addressing everyone she meets, if the greetings are ignored, she makes a funny teasing remark. While this persona works wonderfully in her Kindergarten class, some adults are simply stymied by her behavior.
Happy-Go-Lucky really doesn’t offer up much in the way of a plot. It’s really just a look at this cheerful English school teacher. The film begins with a sequence where Poppy is riding her bicycle; totally carefree and enjoying life. Even when she returns from looking inside a store (where her attempts to coax a smile or some human interaction from a surly clerk fall flat) to find her bike has been stolen, still she smiles.
Poppy lives with her girlfriend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) and tries to keep the peace with her two sisters, one moody and immature and the other, married and pregnant, compelled to criticize Poppy’s single lifestyle. However, Poppy has no desire to take on adult responsibilities like a marriage, kids and a mortgage.
Nearly every scene of Happy-Go-Lucky is geared toward showing off Poppy’s sunny personality. We see her dancing at a club with her sister and friends, getting absolutely “pissed,” and then laughing and talking girl-talk afterward at the apartment. We watch her testing out a craft project with roommate and fellow elementary schoolteacher Zoe and loving it more than her friend. We watch her handle a bully with more understanding than a typical teacher and enthrall the school psychiatrist, Tim (Samuel Roukin), as they date.
The films main conflict begins when Poppy decides to take driving lessons. Her teacher Scott (Eddie Marsan) is a bitter fellow, who has little use for Poppy’s sunny outlook. Scott demands obedience and easily loses his temper. When not shou8ting insane drills, he gives his opinions about racial superiority, the “rigged” English society and mysterious cabals conspiring to oppress him. Poppy responds by teasing him even more. She makes somewhat suggestive comments when he tells her she shouldn’t wear boots while driving, “Will do, Captain Scott! Here we go, gigolo!” The two go together like oil and water, as Poppy only makes her instructor more uptight.
As time goes on, Scott shows signs of bring a sociopath, which turns Happy-Go-Lucky in a decidedly non-comedic direction. He gets it in his head that Poppy’s teasing is really her way of flirting. As a result, Scott totally freaks out when he discovers Poppy is dating Tim. Suddenly Scott’s accusing Poppy of being a whore and a lesbian and a cruel tease, and he begins driving like a madman. If you’ve seen Mike Leigh’s other films, this is where you start hoping Poppy will get through this experience in one piece.
With Happy-Go-Lucky, Mike Leigh has written and directed a film that feels like real life. He keeps the film from dragging by using the kind of overlapping dialogue that drove the old screwball comedies of the 1940-50’s. The film is about love, laughter, hate, anger and every emotion in between. And Sally Hawkins was the perfect messenger.
Miramax offers a transfer that’s decent, with good color saturation and detail for a DVD. It’s presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, “enhanced” for 16×9 televisions. There’s not much grain, and so overall it’s a nice presentation.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is decent, though the scenes are few which remind us that the rear speakers are indeed connected. School scenes and club scenes and the sounds of traffic come across but at other times it’s mostly the front mains and center speaker that carry the load. Bass and treble have a nice balance and dialogue never gets lost among the effects or ambient noise. Subtitles are in Spanish.
Leigh offers an engaging commentary that clues us in on the writing process, casting, behind-the-scenes filming, and director’s decisions. There are also two short bonus features, “Behind the Wheel of Happy-Go-Lucky” and “Happy-in-Character,” which focus on the main characters and show behind-the-scenes clips. The latter is just under 27 minutes long and is probably heavier on the talking heads than it is on clips.