Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 26, 2008 3:37 pm 
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A mellowed Mike Leigh, at 65, produces a definitive anti-'miserabilist' statement

Another one of Mike Leigh's remarkably fluent films made with his well-developed working method, which includes a long period of improvisation and development of back-stories during which, he pointed out at the NYFF Q&A, the actors are paid, and the characters are created and shaped, with surprises all along the way.

Poppy (the superb Sally Hawkins) is the "happy-go-lucky" protagonist, a thirty-year-old English girl who teaches elementary school and lives with Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), her roommate and pal of a decade's standing. Poppy has a wonderful, positive spirit. Am I wrong in thinking that this is particularly striking in the phlegmatic world of the English? She's no Pollyanna. She just chooses to react to things with good humor. In the opening sequence while trying to cheer up a grumpy, leaden-spirited bookstore clerk (Elliot Cowan), she gets her bicycle stolen. It disappoints her ("I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye"), but she quickly moves on and takes the bus or walks, and decides to take driving lessons.

This is the audience's basic introduction to Poppy's attitude to life. Clearly Poppy doesn't encounter sunshine whereever she goes (though this is summer in London, and the weather is nice). Leigh sees this film as his answer to his branding as a "miserabilist." It can be seen as the diametric opposite of Naked. It's Leigh's method that is unchanging. His tone and characters are something new each time. Sally Hawkins' resolute smile sets the tone clearly here, along with her dress style, which a writer has dubbed "garish grunge," framed on Fuji color film stock that provides opulent tones in the primary range within the bright format of Cinemascope--a new medium for Leigh.

Poppy's choice to undergo driver training is fateful because it introduces her to Scott (the droll, excellent Eddie Marsan), her instructor. He is phlegmatic, alright, and messed up. For a start, he's a racist who hates multiculturalism and locks the doors when he sees black people outside the car. Poppy takes the lessons as a lark, which bugs Scott enormously. He thinks her not serious, her insistence on wearing high boots particularly annoying (and no doubt provocative). In time it emerges that he is fascinated by her and even begins to stalk her. Initially it might be thought that Scott is right to be annoyed at Poppy, that her attitude in the lessons is frivolous and almost childish. But why should one adopt a grim attitude? Later it seems more that her mistake is to continue, when Scott is so moody and abusive toward her. But it is her way to give people a chance. She doesn't give up on him till he's gone way too far. Working well in the stages of successive lessons (not to mention the deft editing) Marsan is seen to provide finely modulated performance. He is only serious and a bit stiff at first; his dysfunctional tendencies emerge only gradually with each successive lesson, moving toward a very gradual crescendo that is a model of Leigh's skill with actors and his filmmaking method.

Early on there's a night of clubbing at which Poppy and the less ebullient Zoe get rather drunk before the weekend. At the suggestion of Poppy's school superior Heather (Sylvestra le Touzel), she joins a Flamenco class. The teacher (Karina Fernandez) is another skillful portrait; these brief sequences are priceless and memorable.

While wandering around at night in an unidentifiable place Poppy encounters a tramp (the remarkable Stanley Townsend). This is where Poppy's capacity for outreach is stretched the farthest. The tramp appears to be talking in gibberish; Poppy is undaunted. And he can make sense when spoken to. When she asks, "Have you had your dinner?" He quickly answers "No." When she says "Where will you sleep tonight?" He says right off "In a bed." "Of course," she remarks. Somehow a meeting of minds and spirits occurs, even as the tramp goes off to relieve himself three quarters of the way through their meeting. As can happen in Leigh's films, the outcome of this scene isn't clearcut. He said in the Q&A that it has no plot point as "in a Hollywood film." But that it's significant is indicated by the fact that when Poppy gets home to the flat, she won't tell Zoe about it and keeps the encounter to herself. While we may have felt Poppy was in danger, she never does. the meeting is a sign of her inner strength and generosity of spirit, as well as her intuition with people of all kinds. Though it stands alone, this is a central scene in the film.

Poppy hurts her back and goes to a chiropractor called Ezra (Nonzo Anozie). His laying on of hands is successful, though flamenco class throws things off again a bit.

A violent boy leads to calling in a social worker, Tim (Samuel Roukin), who asks Poppy, hitherto for some time relationship-free, to go out on a date. This works very well. They talk silly nonsense to each other at a pub--improvised stuff about eyes--that shows they click, and when they go to bed at Tim's "humble abode," that goes very well too. When Tim shows up before Poppy's next driving lesson, however, Scott explodes and the lesson turns into a tirade where he endangers them both with his emotional driving and craziness. This is the film's most violent confrontation and forces Poppy to terminate the instruction.

Leigh's turn to positivity may seem to lead us into some feel-good platitudes. But as the late David Foster Wallace said in his now famous Kenyan College commencement address, "in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance." The only thing is this. Leigh's method leads to great richness and depth, and Happy-Go-Lucky is a joy to watch for all but the most dysfunctionally negative of cool dudes (though it could have been cut by a few minutes). But the improvisational method doesn't lead to tidy conclusions. Things end with Zoe and Poppy drifting off in a boat, chatting about life. It's the texture of individual scenes that delights, rather than overall structure. At the same time, things are rounded out with a worldview. And Leigh's finely honed collective working methods make his films world class.

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