A 30-ish young woman sails through the streets of London on her bicycle. Unlike the scowling commuters, she seems gleefully alive and aware, smiling and soaring and sucking in the smog like laughing gas.
Later, she pogos to Pulp in a club, shares a sozzled sunset with mates back at her flat, attends a flamenco class, goes trampolining (“I love it!”). And then takes her first driving lesson...
Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is Mike Leigh’s most inspired and infectious creation since… well, ever. Leigh is often (lazily) accused of caricature, but Poppy is so much more than a patronising mash-up of a director’s niggles and prejudices. She’s pure and simple, real as rain.
Poppy isn’t a primary-school teacher as a convenient fit for her chirpy disposition. Happy-Go-Lucky is a study of higher learning and self-knowledge. And she’s a child herself: inhaling and savouring flavours her harried colleagues barely register. “It’d be amazing to fly, wouldn’t it?” she swoons, midway through a technical discussion about migration.
The film jolts into gear when Poppy meets her driving instructor – the jagged, jaded Scott (a terrific Eddie Marsan). With his daffy doggerel and saliva-flecked conspiracy rants, he’s a bigoted rework of David Thewlis’ manky Manc seer Johnny from Leigh’s 1993 masterpiece Naked. Poppy cheerfully sponges up Scott’s bile and bitterness because, though the bubbles may have risen to the surface, her waters run deep. She’s so clear-eyed and hard-wired into wonder, she sees beyond the posturing tirades to the frightened boy inside.
As ever, Leigh isn’t interested in surgically plotted story-arcs. Happy-Go-Lucky is, like his best films, a singular character sketch; a closely crafted individual worldview gathering drama from casual decisions and collisions. Initial twitches about triteness slowly fall away as Poppy’s effervescence meshes with increasingly complex relationships (Scott, flatmate/ lover, bullied student, twisted sister). And if you think Leigh can’t do love, look out for the glorious scene where Poppy and her new social-worker boyfriend cuddle up close in a pub. Rather than recoil from the awkward improv silences, Leigh’s camera leans forward, sensing truth and beauty in the unsaid.
Leigh might have stolen a few more shadows over the relentless positivity (how would Poppy cope with something more traumatic than a stroppy driving instructor?). But Hawkins’ performance is a marvel of detail and delicacy; just as nuanced and lived-in as Ryan Gosling’s troubled teach in Half Nelson (minus the crack-pipe). Thanks to Leigh’s famously organic approach to character development, every nod, every half-wink, every wrinkle and twinkle feels rooted in the emotional bedrock of Poppy’s backstory. “Sure, life can be hard sometimes,” Poppy shrugs. “But that’s part of what makes it good.” Life Is Bittersweet, then...