One of the hardest things for a film to do, or a book (or any art, really), is to portray a truly good character who is also believable and human. It is a lot easier to portray truly wicked, depraved characters who are believable (i.e. The Joker, or anyone in The Departed). It is totally refreshing, then, to see a film like Happy-Go-Lucky, which is basically a study of one person’s commitment to living a happy, upbeat, glass-half-full life in contemporary London.
British director Mike Leigh makes social-realist films that focus on urban and social problems. Unsurprisingly, his films (Naked, Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, among many others) have a tendency to be rather dour. Not so with Happy-Go-Lucky, however. This film also focuses on the lower-middle classes in urban Britain, but it is not concerned as much with political or bureaucratic problems as with interpersonal choices to either make the best or worst of the life we’ve been dealt.
The film follows “Poppy” (Sally Hawkins), a 30-year-old schoolteacher who lives in a modest flat in North London and rarely has a frown on her face. She’s exuberant about everything and takes a child-like joy in the most mundane event (a dog walking by, a boat ride in the park, etc). To her, there isn’t much in the world that isn’t absolutely “luff-lay.”
Perhaps Leigh has realized that, ultimately, it takes people like Poppy to effect change in this problem-riddled world—people who choose to approach the gritty meanness of the world with hope, grace, and patience. Whether it is a violent student who Poppy takes the time to work with after school, or a homeless man she dares to seek out and show love, Poppy’s aggressive kind-heartedness is what sows the seeds of progress, one person at a time, Leigh seems to be saying. Not that Poppy is successful in every endeavor she undertakes to make someone happier. Some people, like her angry, racist driving instructor (Eddie Marsan), are helpless cases. Poppy can do her best to help him out of his anger, but ultimately it is his choice to choose to be happy.
The strength of this film is that it does not make Poppy out to be a saint. Nor does it suggest that all in life is roses if you only look at it with rose-colored glasses. Poppy recognizes the inherent sadnesses of life; she just chooses to focus on the other side of things. Her happiness is but one—the most glaring—of her personality traits. It is a credit to Sally Hawkins’ remarkable performance that we can see glimpses of instability, doubt, and sadness beneath the surface of Poppy’s ever-smiling face. But her joy is not a cover or veneer; it is real. This is not to say it is the only aspect of her psychology.
In the end, Happy-Go-Lucky poses a challenge to the viewer—a challenge that I definitely felt as a conviction in my heart. As a Christian, I should be as joyful as Poppy, right? I should be as aggressive as she is in seeking people out, loving them unconditionally (the scene with her and the homeless man will stay with me for a while), recognizing that they are not "mere mortals," as C.S. Lewis would say. It is rare that a film leaves me with an image of Christ so much as Happy-Go-Lucky did with Poppy. She is not a “Christ figure” by any means, and doesn’t even appear to be a Christian, but her love and selflessness are totally Christ-like. Props to Mike Leigh and Sally Hawkins for gifting us with a character like that.