Another visit to Leigh's lighter side

October 31, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Mike Leigh is tickled that critics have hailed Happy-Go- Lucky, an invigorating tribute to a beautiful dreamer who happens to teach school, as if it were a change of pace. He chuckles when he says, "It is and it isn't. Each of my films has its dark and light side. I like to serve up a different dish every time I invite you around to supper."

His method is always to cook up characters with actors who are complete partners in developing the psychology, conflict and narrative of a piece. This m.o. has earned him five Oscar nominations and numerous international awards for movies such as Secrets and Lies .

Happy-Go-Lucky began with his desire to explore the "great vitality" of actress Sally Hawkins, who had already performed splendidly for him in Vera Drake and All or Nothing. It evolved into the story of a woman whose primal optimism gets tested by a morose driving instructor. Leigh can't pinpoint when Hawkins' character, Poppy, became a schoolteacher. He does say, "Now it seems inevitable, because teaching kids is an act of optimism by definition."

Leigh fans have seen this film as the flip side of his nightmarish Naked (1993) which starred David Thewliss as a nihilist named Johnny. That antihero's typical statement was, "the world is overcrowded, isn't it? It do need a little pruning." In Happy-Go-Lucky, when Poppy's roommate Zoe says, "You can't make everyone happy," Poppy replies, "There's no harm in trying that Zoe, is there?"

The fascination for Leigh is what connects these seemingly antithetical characters. "Poppy and Johnny have a good deal in common. Both reject and eschew the materialistic world. And neither is cynical. Johnny is a frustrated, disappointed and embittered idealist. Poppy is no such thing. She confronts difficulties and setbacks and gets on with life."

Leigh wanted to put her in a wide-screen picture that would "burst with color." Good karma begat good karma. His genius cinematographer, Dick Pope, found that Fuji had come out with the perfect film stock for her, aptly named "Vivid."

Leigh has always combined or alternated the attitudes of Naked and Happy-Go-Lucky. But there's more Poppy than Johnny to him. How else could he have found the wherewithal to make 18 Mike Leigh movies in a climate that generally fosters conformity?

The reigning virtuoso of movie humanism, Leigh asks you to approach his films as he constructs them, establishing connections with each character.

"I think you develop your relationships with the people in my movies the way you do in real life. When you meet, you react to them according to preconceptions based on everyone superficially like them that you have previously known. Then the image you have of the person gradually changes; as it becomes three-dimensional it moves away from that original image and grows closer to the person as he or she really is."

Leigh concedes that the forced jollity of an early scene between Poppy and a distant bookstore owner may put off some audiences. "You could be forgiven for wondering, 'Can I spend two hours with her?' Then you learn that she works hard and is a committed, grounded adult." To Leigh, Poppy demonstrates what happens when "anyone with a highly developed sense of humor, like Poppy, or me, comes up against people who are clinically divorced from a sense of humor. You can't help debunking the situation."

At its most daring, Happy-Go-Lucky puts Poppy in the driver's seat with that morose driving educator Scott (Eddie Marsan). "He's deeply insecure and paranoid and he misinterprets everything, and he can't believe that she's not only a teacher, but a good one. He assumes she's a barmaid, because he thinks she's so chaotic." Scott comes to represent the meanness and weakness of a blinkered view of the world, just as Poppy comes to represent the buoyancy and, yes, toughness, that emerges from a hopeful and unencumbered embrace of the world.

In the film's most mysterious passage, Poppy wanders into a blighted cityscape, where she establishes a persuasive rapport with a grubby, babbling homeless man (Stanley Townsend). Leigh wanted to create a sequence that would pull the audience out of its comfort zone.

"She has an inquiring mind," Leigh explains, "and she hears someone chanting. She's already in a reflective state; she has few barriers to life anyway, and hers are totally down here." When the man asks, "Know what I mean?" Poppy says, "Yeah, I do" - and you believe her. It's a pure, poetic expression of E.M. Forster's dictum, "Only connect." When Poppy returns home, she doesn't say a thing about it to her roommate. "As open as she is, she has a private life, you see. That's what she's all about. She is a complete human being."

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