15 October 2008

Review: Happy-Go-Lucky

Genre: Drama (Character Study)

Director Mike Leigh is perhaps best categorized by his œuvre to date as a portraitist, an extremely nuancing and intimately acquainting capturer of a person's or persons' lives, regardless of whether or not they be real or imagined, historically fictionalized or convivially contemporarily invented; and it is perhaps also worthwhile to note that the subjects of his detective, inspective portraits are consistently members of British society, people who dwell in shadowy little boxes and alcoves and seem almost imperceptibly on the verge of a chaotic expression but at all times, regardless of their inner states, retain at least a modicum of reserve and dispassion in their dearest endeavors. Consider as examples W. S. Gilbert (of 1999's breathtaking Topsy-Turvy), Vera Drake, and Cynthia Rose Pearly (of 1996's percolating Secrets & Lies); and now add a somewhat attitudinally distinct but nevertheless ontologically coherent Poppy Montgomery to their ranks, for she, a quirkily-hipster-esque, Zeitgeist-y personification of external resilience and optimism & kindergarten teacher, is the subject of Mr. Leigh's latest work, Happy-Go-Lucky. Troubled at heart by that same continuous thread of dissonance from her surroundings and simultaneous (though hardly admitted) internal yearning to be at resonance with them, Poppy flits around the screen in a revealing character study, the first of Mr. Leigh's films so purely intent upon its main character that it eschews almost any kind of greater structure or argument about society, its underpinning metaphysics, or even mere interpersonal emotion that would have otherwise achieved the same level of sophistication and exceptionality as have done his previous films, especially those aforementioned. Unclear as to whether or not such a direction might have been his intent in the making of this latest film, I have no choice but to go on my own assumptions, that it was somehow definitively not. The continual disparity of Poppy's quiet internal and domestic life as a single 30-something female living with her roommate of 10 years from her boisterous external and occupational life as a decidedly offbeat adult and eclectic kindergarten teacher, when coupled with the scenes of her driving lessons and her interactions with the troubled student in her class, speak all too readily of an ambition that would go beyond the narrowly defined "character study" and become then more a social investigation or even social critique as notably did his Vera Drake (2004), in which coincidentally Sally Hawkins who plays Poppy had a small rôle. I mean, why else then diagonose Poppy and her personal condition by social reflection in the first 15 minutes of the film? Her dismissal by the bookshop-keeper, her reaction to her bicycle's being theft, and especially her wild yet contained (i. e., eyes-closed, solitary) dancing amid the asynchronous crowd at the concert/rave all resound of an intrinsic social participation in the description of this film; and the later interactions, especially the one between Poppy and a random homeless man whom she meets late at night, urgently confirm the importance of this social participation. It seems injust then, that Mr. Leigh should deny the culmination of that to his audience and leave us as he brought us in: entirely mise-en-scene and without anything of building note ever happening. It's all just, "Here's Poppy doing this," and, "Here's Poppy doing that," without ever taking the time to confront Poppy sincerely and enduringly with a worldview or alchemical antidote that would cause her to change, if only in the slightest way, for the benefit of the 'reader' (of the film). But then perhaps such a confrontation would have been too cruel for the fragile hummingbird she is - would have seemed to be too cruel to her audience...balderdash! Really, balderdash! Clinging to unwavering optimism is the tragedy of this film, both diegetically, because having endured the trials of others that in our contemporary social climes rivet drama Poppy goes on expressively static, and non-diegetically, because a film about a character who doesn't change despite whatever the world throws at her can hardly be a captivating film or enduring film at all and must remain alternatively a momentary social tour in which various items of dramatic note are kept safely outside of the bubble of our transit car (i. e., main character), with the exception of perhaps a flick of the wrist in momentary discomfort after having seen one - but momentary only. In short, therefore, nothing of Happy-Go-Lucky really ever sticks and we - or, at least, I - leave the theater, the memories and effects of it evaporating as quickly as had those of the also now-in-theaters, execrable Igor. Needless to say, I was on the whole disappointed, Mr. Leigh, and fully expect more from you next time around.
However, before I close this little review of mine, I must extend my warmest commendations to Sally Hawkins, who as the focus of this petite character study brings a depth and a rhythm of life that grows her character to be large enough to support a whole film - a weighty feat indeed. Congratulations, well done.

Still, however, Grade: C.

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