DVD Review: Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

Now Available on DVD

Bookmark this on Delicious
submit to reddit
Print Page


I. An Introduction

Near the end of 2008 as critics began compiling their Top 10 lists for their favorite films of the year, there seemed to be a recurring theme running throughout all of the articles. Namely-- at least as far as mainstream cinema was concerned-- both film fans and critics agreed that it was one of the weakest years in recent memory.

Typically, Top 10 lists are rather easy to put together because we're inundated with a large amount of superlative choices as you find yourself making hard decisions regarding which movies will make the cut and what ones will not. Usually it's an embarrassment of riches yet in '08, by the time December rolled around, most of us realized there were only one to three films that we felt exceptionally strongly about and thus, our lists were flooded with movies that in any other year, probably wouldn’t have made the final cut.

However, as a reviewer who consistently looks at film as a wonderful opportunity to scavenger hunt and find the hidden gems, overlooked independent releases, and those that have earned accolades and buzz at film festivals around the globe, I saw a much different side to 2008 than most mainstream critics and audiences. This is because, in addition to attending press screenings, I spent a lot of time actively seeking out the movies that either arrived in the art house for one week or don't get much play in a majority of theaters across America.

Simply put, to me 2008 was an incredibly strong year for foreign and independent films. However, casual moviegoers who were tired of the increasingly depressing Oscar bait fare( in our horrific economic climate) and understandably against paying astronomical ticket prices for movies that should come with a prescription for Prozac-- avoided the multiplex like the plague.

And sadly, whenever a genuine feel-great movie comes along and then nearly vanishes from the face of the Earth because it doesn’t have the major studio push given to something like Watchmen or The Dark Knight, everyone truly misses out on some little-seen treasures such as Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky.

While my first screening of the film was at our local Scottsdale International Film Festival-- at which director Mike Leigh was in attendance to introduce the film and chat about it afterward-- I was dismayed by the lack of play that followed for the critical hit which boasts a radiant “star is born” performance by Sally Hawkins in a role that should have earned her an Academy Award nomination.

In fact, Hawkins was deemed one of the earliest “female” sure-things for an Oscar nomination and while the Hollywood Foreign Press remembered the actress at the Golden Globes where she received the award for Best Actress (Musical or Comedy) and also nominated the film as Best Picture in the same category, shockingly Hawkins was left off the Oscar list.

Ironically the highly improvised film (typical of the legendary filmmaker Mike Leigh) received a sole nomination for Best Original Screenplay which is amusing since he's a master at letting the actors tell the story spontaneously but it’s ultimately Hawkins’ performance that makes you fall in love with the film. And unfortunately, the absence of her name reaffirmed yet again that comedic portrayals aren’t taken quite as seriously at the Oscars where tragedy always reigns supreme (save for a well-deserved Oscar for Penelope Cruz in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona and a nomination for Tropic Thunder's Robert Downey Jr.).

Now finally available as a beautifully transferred DVD (curiously at this point with zero plans I could find for a Blu-ray release), hopefully it will finally find the audience it deserved all along. However, before I jump in headfirst to discuss the extras included on the disc—to freshen your memory or introduce you to the film for the first time-- here’s the original theatrical review.

II. Original Film Review

Although looks can certainly be deceiving, from the moment we first see the infectious smile and brightly attired Poppy (Sally Hawkins) riding her bicycle through the streets of London, we are instantly drawn in by our heroine. Noteworthy as an unabashedly old-fashioned opening that's reminiscent of vintage MGM Golden Era films-- we're enchanted within moments of the credit sequence for Mike Leigh's delightfully life-affirming hug of a film, Happy-Go-Lucky.

As she greets passersby and waves to others whom we don't see in the overly long extended close-ups, it seems that Hawkins and Leigh (and thereby extension Poppy) are all breaking down the traditional wall between the audience and the art and greeting viewers directly.

If there is any inclusion for Oscar Gold that seems like a sure thing this year, I'd say one of the best bets is for the beguiling chameleon Hawkins to earn herself a nomination for Best Actress, despite the Academy's disillusionment with rewarding comedic performances. In her Berlin Film Festival award-winning performance, Hawkins has been given a star-making role in the tradition of Audrey Tautou in Amelie or Renee Zellweger in Jerry Maguire.

Although to be fair, she'd first impressed me earlier in 2008 with her work as Colin Farrell's wife in Woody Allen's underrated tragedy Cassandra's Dream. And following that, she gained wider recognition here in the states with her award-winning turn in the BBC/PBS joint broadcast of Masterpiece Theatre's adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion.

While admittedly in Happy, Poppy has the tendency to rattle on incessantly in trying to make the day of everyone she comes across on a regular basis and from the start, we're not sure if we'll be annoyed or enchanted by Poppy but Hawkins wins us over in a matter of seconds. Upon discovering that her bike was stolen, instead of exhaling a string of profanity or kicking the nearest post, Poppy feels remorse that she didn't have a chance to say goodbye but realizes that it's about time for the thirty year old single elementary school teacher to learn to drive.

It's during these driving lessons that Poppy's true character-- namely her humanity and integrity-- get tested as her racist and ultra-religious, obsessive instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan) tries chipping away at Poppy piece by piece. From critiquing her gaudy and revealing attire of clanging bracelets and Flashdance era 80's inspired clothing, he's especially irked by her high-heeled boots, which he vows are life-threatening when worn behind the wheel of a car. After surface level insults, gradually his attacks move onto Poppy herself and her endlessly sunny outlook and perpetual choice to be happy. And it's in these precious scenes that Hawkins has some great moments that really allow her to move beyond what may have been—in someone else's hands-- a one-dimensional, flaky character.

Prone to jumping on a trampoline at the end of a hard day to de-stress or coming up with creative arts and craft lesson plans for her students with her best friend and flat-mate of ten years Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) and younger sister Suzy (Kate O'Flynn), we follow Poppy through a trying short period of time.

And soon, the challenges in dealing with Scott exacerbate her other hurdles. Specifically, they include accidentally injuring her back, taking up Flamenco with a stormy and equally tempestuous teacher, getting to the bottom of a student's misbehavior along with a kindly social worker who has eyes for Poppy, and visiting her angry yuppie sister who resents what she feels are Poppy, Zoe and Suzy's inability to grow up.

Yet is Poppy living in denial or simply choosing an outlook that makes the darkness of the outside world bearable? One can decide for themselves but the bottom line is, coming off of the bleak but critically revered Vera Drake, it's nice to see British filmmaker Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies, Topsy-Turvy) crafting something that's so full of optimism and good humor. Describing his work in Entertainment Weekly's Fall Movie Preview, he shared his belief that as far as he's concerned, “we're making an anti-miserabilist film, because we live in tough times and it's easy to be down about many things, about what we're doing to people in the world... [yet in the end, Happy-Go-Lucky is] a love letter to life.”

Although social and political situations creep into Poppy's daily pursuits, none more so than-- aside from Scott's anti-immigration rants-- in a heartbreaking scene where Poppy tries to chat with a rambling, mentally ill homeless man in a tense exchange. However, above all we're always reassured by the far wiser than one would've assumed leading lady who seems to take the greatest heartbreak in stride. Although she's finally told again that she personally can't make everyone happy, she argues that there's “no harm in trying” with a shrug or flip of the hair.

It's lines and actions like these that some would judge naive, yet I considered heroic given how tempting it is to feel like we're powerless in a society of rapid deterioration whether it's via war or the economy or just in the littlest things like strangers saying hi to one another or smiling at those who may be having a tough day. There's a lot to learn from Poppy and although I wouldn't recommend flying about on trampolines anytime soon or perhaps driving in ultra high-heels, it wouldn't hurt if we spent a day just trying to be a bit more considerate to our fellow man.


Presenting the film in 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio that is enhanced for 16x9 televisions along with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, you’re already smiling before the movie even begins. Already launching into a depiction of life as viewed by Poppy, we're taken in promptly as we reach its brightly colored menu filled with pictures of the cast that pop up amongst flowers, butterflies, and hearts, that moves from left to right as though we're in the car with Poppy and Scott moving down Leigh's cheery road.

In addition to the feature-length audio commentary provided by Mike Leigh, the DVD contains two enjoyable featurettes titled “Behind the wheel of Happy-Go-Lucky,” and “Happy-In-Character.” The first featurette focuses single-mindedly on what filmmaker Mike Leigh felt was the most central to the success of the film -- more specifically, the driving scenes which heighten the tension in challenging both Poppy and Scott who couldn't be more different from one another.

Running just under five minutes, Mike Leigh referred to the driving scenes and the characters’ complicated relationship as “putting two bombs in a pressure cooker.” As Eddie Marsan reveals while he was preparing to play such a troubled character-- he was erroneously under the impression that similar to his work in Vera Drake-- he was making what he felt would be “a really serious movie.”

Of course by throwing Poppy into the car with him, the two spark right off the bat as Scott brings out the worst in her since as we learn by then Poppy lives to make people laugh. In addition to the emotional undertone in these scenes and the way they move from absolutely hilarious to a bit scary, audiences are literally let inside the car to see exactly how it was done.

In doing so, they illustrate the complexity of shooting inside a very tiny automobile with lipstick and high-definition cameras and as Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope discuss turning Scott's vehicle into a mini recording studio complete with light and sound to capture everything. Moreover, Leigh jokes that he wasn't sure if he was more worried about his health lying in the cramped backseat or laughing through the scenes and ruining that takes.

Mike Leigh enthusiasts and those who are either just becoming fans of the filmmaker or were simply delighted by this unconventional, unexpectedly joyful film will definitely want to take in the roughly twenty-seven minute extra, “Happy-In-Character” which documents Leigh’s highly improvisational and unique filmmaking practice.

Inspiring the actors to completely build their characters right from birth to deciding their individual back-stories imagining what their favorite colors would be and the books they were reading, he gives his cast in amazing sense of confidence, teamwork, and freedom in their craft.

In ensuring that all of the departments work in tandem from costumes and makeup to production design, actress Alexis Zegernan (who portrays Zoe) describes the process as making a “leap into the unknown,” in describing the way in which she feels she got to know more about her character than she does about herself before ultimately Mike Leigh decides that it's okay for her character to meet another character.

Deciding to put certain characters together and seeing what happens, the brilliance of Leigh’s decision to pair Poppy with Scott manages to make the film that much more natural, unexpected, and completely compelling. As Zegerman continued, Leigh’s ultimate goal (in addition to making them feel “confident in character”) is instructing his actors to "just be" and reacts as they feel their character would in any given situation.

Pointing out that Mike Leigh wanted to tap into Sally Hawkins’ “energy and emotional generosity” along with his respect for her professional contributions as a character actor, Hawkins reveals that above all what Leigh wanted from her was “warmth” and the “lighter side of life.”

Describing her character as having a perpetually “naughty twinkle in her eye,” Hawkins first labels Poppy as a woman who “just doesn’t shut up,” and applauds the way she manages to consistently see the humor in everything. Enoying the challenge of playing someone who never judges others or herself and in fact, thinks she’s hilarious, Hawkins who confesses that “you can’t be down when you’re playing her,” ultimately listed her driving force as a naturally, incredibly curious soul who wants to learn more about life and what makes everyone she meets tick.

Described as “the antithesis” of Scott—in the end it’s Sally Hawkins’ splendid portrayal which is essentially the human embodiment of Leigh’s decision to craft a work that was about “openness and love,” in celebrating "the generosity of spirit.” Further celebrating his leading lady whom Eddie Marsan notes “everyone falls in love with her” as “a laughing Buddha without the weight,” Marsan makes one of the most astute pieces of character analysis in the featurette by explaining that at first, we feel that Poppy isn’t really living in or part of “the real world,” but then we begin to realize that perhaps, maybe “we’re not in the real world.”

A joyous and fully entertaining world to get lost in—Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky—is the type of sunny British import that has hidden levels of depth upon repeat viewings and is moreover one well-deserving of a place in your disc collection.