Poppy, played by Sally Hawkins, is an insanely optimistic primary school teacher whose reaction to her bicycle being stolen is to commence driving lessons. Her driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan) is the polar opposite – and so originate, with a few others along for the ride, the many clashes of Happy-Go-Lucky: optimistic/pessimistic, happy/angry, mature/immature, teacher/student, contentment/bitterness and the subjective association of each. Handled with Mike Leigh’s usual habits of quirkiness and dark humour along with remarkable characterisation, the film walks a fine line between being ‘too much’ and ‘just enough’ but as per usual it is the foibles of both Leigh and his characters that win you over… for the most part.
The only over-arching problem with this film is that we have come to expect more from Mike Leigh. His almost exclusive grasp on the idiosyncracies of Britain and his unique manner of storytelling and characterisation have become a genre unto themselves. He has managed to subtly criticise Britain to the Brits, only getting away with it because his humour takes the edge off, as well as bridging culture gaps to represent the charm of the misunderstood and unspoken aspects of British culture. So have we already seen the best of Mike Leigh? Is he a hostage to his own back catalogue?
Leigh doesn’t do clichés, so when Poppy remarks ‘don’t want to be going there’ when she spots the book The Road to Reality, or muses ‘It’d be amazing to fly, wouldn’t it?’, it would be reasonable to assume that these will remain passing comments from this flighty bird – there’s no way Leigh will fall back on the notion of flight as freedom/movement. This really is old hat, and Leigh is far too ingenious for that, but alas he does. The amazing creations that are his characters are tied down to a stock standard narrative trajectory as Poppy moves from the freedom of her bicycle to the more mature and rule-ridden world of Scott’s car. Scott has been working in his sensible car and driving in the same circles saying the same thing for many years now. Poppy has ‘flown’ and talks about her year of travelling, visiting Australia, South-East Asia and bunny-hopping in a Cadillac down a Miami beach. But now that she has fallen into teaching, Poppy can only teach others how to fly and embarks upon dancing classes in which she is taught to stomp her feet very firmly on the ground.
By the film’s conclusion, though, a happy medium is sourced in the rowing pond of twee Hampstead Heath (or is it equally twee Regent’s Park), as Poppy rows and giggles on the telephone to her new (and may I say sensationally boring) boyfriend who looks remarkably like Roger Ramjet – social worker and ‘hero of our nation’; insert your own American Dream connotations here. Poppy has found a place and a way to be and move as herself within the discordant city of London, but has had to lose her bike and learn how to navigate around Scott’s dangerous streets in order to get there, perhaps adopting a few more mainstream habits along the way.
The narrative arc is formulaic (but still enjoyable!), some scenes are painfully predictable and we are bombarded with clichés through sets and costuming. So why do I still like this film so much? Is it Leigh’s characters alone that carry the whole production? And if so, is this enough? In an attempt to disallow it to be so, I found myself searching for the tool that is unique or novel to this film and found it staring me in the face. It is about teaching and learning – quite clichéd concepts, but still open to many different exploitations and incarnations.
The dichotomy of teaching and learning in Happy-Go-Lucky is particularly interesting when one considers who is teaching what to whom, who is learning what from whom and why anyone is teaching in the first place. When talking about developing a background for Poppy, in the DVD extras the superb Sally Hawkins admits that Poppy truly ‘fell into teaching’ after she had finished all the other adventurous things she knew she wanted to do with her life. This cements the notion that Poppy teaches her students to fly because she can no longer. Moreover, Poppy goes trampolining for exercise once a week which, aside from being quite a unique method of exercising very appropriate to Poppy, is most likely the closest Poppy will come to being airborne in her present life situation. Even this is soon thwarted when Poppy hurts her back whilst trampolining; perhaps her body’s way of telling her she is too old for such frivolity and just at the right time her colleague invites her to a much more common exercise class for adults: flamenco dancing. However exotic this class should be, the very passionate flamenco teacher (played brilliantly by Karina Fernandez) obviously comes from another place and time and just like Poppy, has had her wings clipped as she fell into teaching. The passion is still there but the environment is not.
It would be unfair to say that Poppy is then miserable because she hadn’t planned to become a teacher. Not only does she emphasise many times exactly how happy she is, but we also see how talented she is as a teacher, and can even presume that perhaps it is exactly because she didn’t plan to be there, that Poppy is especially content. This is the biggest difference between Poppy and the other teachers we see in the film, especially Scott. Not only does Scott teach a more predictable and repetitive mechanism, but he is also very static about what his responsibility as a teacher is. He has methods he has always used which he is sure have never failed him. These same methods seem to be indicative of his whole way of being: practical job, practical car, practical clothes, practical words – in short, everything that Poppy is not. Scott also considers himself to be very good at his job as he has never given up on a pupil, however we are spoon-fed the acumen that this definitely does not equate to being a good teacher.
Scott educates through repetition and brainwashing, the same methods that he criticises in the education system and ironically the same singular mentality that inspire his bigotry. ‘Different’ does not appeal to Scott, which is why he is so baffled by his fascination with Poppy’s lyrical conversation, impractical boots and bubbly personality. In contrast, Poppy is perhaps not a very good student. Yes, she is strong, courageous and tactful in her handling of Scott’s temper and habits, but we are never shown her listening and learning to the information that Scott actually does have to impart. Even in the DVD interviews with the film’s stars there is only mention of what Poppy means to Scott, how she opens up his eyes as she winds him up to bursting out of his comfort zone. Lest we forget Scott actually has a job to do and in her lack of consideration for his role and character, Poppy is not necessarily any less of a bully than those she hints at in Scott’s past.
For all the critiques of this film, the one enduring Mike Leighism that still shines through is the characterisation. All the acting is superb (though I am only including Samuel Roukin’s Tim in this category if he was supposed to be mind-numbingly dull) and this is no mean feat considering the complexities of the characters being portrayed.
As a master of teaching England as a foreign language both to audiences abroad and by holding a mirror up to Brits at home, Leigh also seems to have again captured the habits of ‘Generation Y’ perfectly in the blend of a Poppy, who will flit from one fancy to another, and Scott, whose world bears the scars of change and is too suspicious to expand. And thus may so many of Leigh’s films be summarised – the old chestnut of darkness and humour encapsulated on what could be seen as an ironic title: is Poppy happy? Or lucky? And following her driving/life lessons, does she in fact have anywhere else to go? If so, where and at what cost?