At Telluride last year, Mike Leigh said he deliberately wanted to make an “anti-miserablist” film. That got a laugh from festival patrons who often complain about the bleak fare common to the festival.
But that doesn’t mean Happy-Go-Lucky is all bubble gum and rainbows. Mike Leigh films are known for their detailed portrayals of fully-formed human beings. There are very few two-dimensional characters in any Leigh film. And like most people, even the effervescent Poppy (Sally Hawkins) can have a bad day or a scary encounter in the dark.
Poppy is self-consciously positive, so much so that it becomes one of the central themes of the film. Is positivity the same as naiveté? Can a person stay positive in the face of dourness, defeat, and back pain? For Poppy, it’s not easy staying positive, yet it also seems like the most natural thing in the world.
Poppy is both a teacher and a student (one of the film’s other big ideas). With her kids she’s “fun” and engaged. With her driving instructor she’s frustratingly flighty. And when sitting in on her friend’s Flamenco class, she’s just in it for the ride. That also sums up the level of engagement Happy-Go-Lucky asks for. It’s a lark, but one with Mike Leigh’s signature well-defined characters.
R for language
There are three extra features on the DVD. First up is Happy-in-Character, which is 26 minutes of interviews with actors and the director. The footage is stark high-key lights on a black background — nothing visually exciting here, just some talking heads. It’s probably a fascinating featurette for actors who want to know more about working the Leigh way. But it’s not essential for average Jane.
Behind the wheel of...is a little four-minute video blurb about the driving lessons in the film. Much of these 4 minutes are repeated from Happy-in-Character. If you’re not an actor, this is probably easier to digest. Cinematographer Dick Pope talks about the technology needed to shoot in an actual car being driven by the actors.
Finally, there is an audio commentary track recorded by Mike Leigh. He does offer some genuine insights, but there are also times when it sounds like he’s out of touch and talking down to you. During the first ten minutes he asks rhetorical questions: “Who is this woman, what is she like, why does she gravitate towards children’s books?” as though lecturing to a classful of beginning drama students.
There are long dry spells in the commentary, including one long enough to have been a bathroom break over the movie’s climax. But Leigh is also well prepared, and when a new act or scene comes on, he usually starts back in, as though he’s though he’s made notes for each scene. I always appreciate it when a commentator takes the time to prepare.
How to Use This DVD
Watch the movie, and watch the four-minute extra feature on driving. If you’re an actor, watch the 25-minute featurette with the cast and director. If you’re a new fan of Mike Leigh, listen to the commentary (old fans like me can skip it).