If you’re happy and you know it…
Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky strikes a brilliant blow against today’s grey, miserabilist hostility towards life, love and work.
The late, great American comedian Bill Hicks had a routine satirising the bombardment of apocalyptic news items on CNN: ‘War! Death! Aids! Murder! Famine!’ The punch line was Hicks doing an impression of a bird tweeting in a quiet leafy suburb. The ever-growing distance between shrill doom-mongering masquerading as ‘reality’ and how most people actually live is also the motivation behind Mike Leigh’s new film, Happy-Go-Lucky. Apparently, the 62-year-old director wanted to strike a blow against today’s miserablist hostility towards living and enjoying modern life. Quite right, too.
And yet there’s something comical about Mike Leigh complaining that there’s too much dark stuff on display and that we all need to lighten up. As writer and director of Naked and Vera Drake, two of the most harrowing films of the past 20 years, Leigh’s complaint against the miserablist tendency is the equivalent of Radiohead’s po-faced glumstrel Thom Yorke embarking on a new career as a stand-up comedian.
But perhaps this does some of Mike Leigh’s work a grave disservice. A lot of his films are indeed acutely funny, laced with realistic hope rather than weighed down with inescapable despair. And in the context of an age where withering cynicism and misanthropy are watchwords, the compassion and warmth evident in his films are now strikingly appealing and welcome. On balance, it certainly helps compensate for the often-discussed weaknesses in Leigh’s films. At worst, there’s a mildly patronising and voyeuristic portrayal of working-class lives and ‘manners’ that borders on titillation. Too often Leigh’s preoccupation with capturing the mundane and ordinary makes a virtue of the banal, often at the expense of any real insights.
Nevertheless, Leigh’s stock as a quality film maker has risen in recent years simply because his last few films, All or Nothing and Vera Drake, are so fantastically accomplished. There’s also a real sense that Leigh’s idiosyncratic brand of realism is more influential now than ever. The current flagship comedies on BBC 3, Gavin and Stacey and the underrated Pulling, take their style and dialogue from Mike Leigh films and are all the better for it. Leigh has also been instrumental in schooling rafts of singularly talented actors – Tim Roth, Phil Davies, Lesley Manville and the late Katrin Cartlidge, to name a few – and squeezing out of them traffic-stopping performances.
The same is now true of jobbing actress Sally Hawkins, who takes her inaugural lead as Poppy (neé Pauline) Cross in Happy-Go-Lucky. It’s a demanding, difficult role to get right and Hawkins rises to the challenge with relish and nuance. Poppy is a 30-year-old primary school teacher flat sharing in north London with her close friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman). Poppy is also irrepressibly perky to the point of irritation. There’s no doubt that this character’s quirky mannerisms are deliberately exaggerated to underscore the film’s anti-miserablist message. It’s almost as if Leigh is testing the audience to see whether we are comfortable or confounded by boundless joy.
At this point, alarm bells should be ringing loud enough to wake the dead. Was the slimy Noel Edmonds at hand as a consultant with his New Age ‘positivity’ garbage? Worse, is Leigh now endorsing the government’s and Dave Cameron’s ‘happiness’ agenda? Will Happy-Go-Lucky become part of the ‘emotional well-being’ classes being devised by Ed Balls? In an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, Leigh ridiculed the ‘happiness’ policies as ‘banal’ and rejected the idea that psychological exhortations to ‘get happy’ would actually work anyway. It’s clear that Happy-Go-Lucky isn’t some trite holding-hands session dispensing cinematic self-help advice with Su Pollard in spandex leggings. It achieves what Leigh sets out to do – to show that the apocalyptic, deadening portrayal of the modern world is false and that there’s much to enjoy and get on with. It’s a slender premise for a feature length film, but it’s also a point that you can’t help but cheer on.
As ever in Mike Leigh films, there’s no discernible plot, just a two-hour snapshot of how Poppy, her friends, her younger sister and her work colleagues make the most of living in London. Happy-Go-Lucky joins the slim pantheon of ‘female bonding’ films, but avoids the tears and tantrums that often accompany this clichéd terrain. There is an inevitable clubbing and post-clubbing scene early in the film which suggests that binge drinking can be good for you. It is, after all, a Saturday night out. At the same time, the notion that thritysomething women have become feckless and irresponsible is also kicked into touch. For Poppy and her friends, the demands and responsibilities of work dominate over all else in the film. (Poppy must be the first teacher not to moan about being a teacher.) As Poppy tells an anxious, slightly younger sister, she simply doesn’t have the time to go out boozing all the time – work comes first.
Behind the daffy demeanour, it’s also clear that Poppy possesses a sharp, probing intelligence and victim-free resilience that’s warmly appealing. She’s incredibly alert to everything and everyone around her and can’t help but make playfully sarcastic wordplay as events unfold. The film’s best comedic moments involve Poppy and a bad-tempered, casually racist driving instructor called Scott (Eddie Marsan). He is driven mad by Poppy’s perma-giggling, rapid-fire (Groucho) Marxian wit and develops a sinister obsession with Poppy’s personal life. At each lesson, his anger and his blinkered prejudices seem to ratchet up a notch, leading to an explosive and ugly confrontation late in the film. Leigh regular Marsan is especially excellent as the corrosively paranoid Scott and seems to act as a polar opposite to Poppy’s exuberant and ebullient spirit.
As a character, he’s a product of the relentless suspicion and loathing of others that is the stock fable of mainstream intellectual thought. He’s conspiratorial against ‘Evil America’, he thinks Britain is ‘overcrowded’, implies that women are harlots and he has that ill-thought out, knee-jerk hostility to multiculturalism that the Daily Mail would pass off as insight. Scott appears thoroughly cut off from the joys of everyday life, the glowering face of modern cynicism and alienation writ large.
In another memorable scene, Poppy has to deal with a slightly younger, married and settled sister out in Southend. Envious and hostile to her older sister’s life in London, she represents another embittered individual who believes that Poppy’s freedom and independence is somehow morally reprehensible. Although Leigh ostensibly is setting out to make a defiantly anti-miserablist film, he hasn’t opted for the sickly sweet Richard Curtis route either. At the same time, these dark contours never feel bolted on but are believable incursions into Poppy’s life and inner thoughts. In fact, it would be surprising if no character somehow expressed disapproval of Poppy’s lifestyle. After all, she represents the antithesis of how we’re meant to feel about the modern world.
Unlike Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky probably won’t pick up many awards. It’s not a film with a ‘big statement’ and it signals a return to Leigh’s low-key films in the Nineties, such as Life Is Sweet and, in particular, Career Girls. But whereas those two films were only intermittingly successful, Happy-Go-Lucky’s vivid, absorbing and truthful portrayal of thirtysomething London life shows how far Leigh has developed his craft over the past decade.
There’s also a sense that Leigh’s brand of compassionate realism has become more engaging as cinema and drama becomes overly negative about the human condition. A refusal to rise above the banal and mundane was always Leigh’s glaring weakness as a film maker. But when ordinary people’s everyday life and behaviour has become politicised and problematised, Leigh’s ringing endorsement of free individuals enjoying the good life in twenty-first century Britain has never been more welcome.
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.