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"Happy-Go-Lucky" is a strange and wonderful film from Mike Leigh, a man whose other work has always had a sad edge somewhere around it; even the comedy "Life is Sweet" was a film whose subtext was tragic. And here he's made a film about a 30-year-old primary-school teacher in London named Poppy (Sally Hawkins) who is unremittingly cheerful, and yet has an intuitive empathy toward whomever she deals with.
As the opening credits roll, we meet Poppy on her bicycle, with a wide-mouth grin, going on an errand of sorts; she ties the bicycle up to a fence and goes into a bookstore, whose proprietor she cannot even get to say hello. When she comes out the bike is gone. "I didn't even get to say goodbye," she tells herself.
Poppy dresses herself in outrageous costumes and carries them off (there is an ongoing joke between her and her driving instructor (Eddie Marsden) over the fact that she wears heels to each lesson), and yet she is not a conventional beauty, with a mouth too wide and a bit of a receding chin. But she brings an ebullience to everything she does, whether it's dealing with a disruptive child who has issues at home, or - in a strange episode, and one I'm not sure actually works - she goes out at night to see a homeless man with great demons eating away at him; she is, perhaps, the only person who's even talked to him in days.
Poppy takes her pleasures wherever she likes; at a nightclub, drinking with friends, taking Flamenco lessons, and bouncing on a trampoline. One weekend Poppy and her flatmate Zoe go to visit her younger sister at her house in Brighton; the sister is married and pregnant and talks to Poppy about her biological clock. But somehow Poppy seems to know, instinctively, just what is best for her and what is not. She finds a date - and we can hope it will be eventful - in the social worker who comes to school to deal with the young boy. But writer-director Leigh does not let us know what will happen; perhaps he does not know himself.
Mike Leigh has always worked without a prepared script; he and his actors spend months before shooting even starts, working up back-stories, trying out scenes, changing things, moving characters around, until he feels ready to shoot a film. "Happy-Go-Lucky" was made that same way, and although at the screening I saw a number of people found their way to the exit during the film, I believe you will find it as worth-while as I did.
11/21/08 <! new pasted review ends on line above>