Stars: *** 1/2
Rating: R for language, some nudity and mature themes
Run Time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Director Mike Leigh knows how to draw the best from his actors, putting them through the paces of a rigorous rehearsal schedule that nets the dramatic realism of improvisational scripting. Sally Hawkins’ enchanting performance is yet another example that Leigh’s trademark technique is working.
Poppy (Hawkins) is a glass-half-full sort of girl for whom lemons become lemonade each and every day. She dresses in Technicolor “chic”, stays fit by bouncing on a trampoline and wants to learn flamenco. When her precious bicycle is stolen her only lament is a missed opportunity to say goodbye.
Poppy lives with best friend and fellow singleton Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) and works as a primary school teacher in contemporary London. Once sans bicycle she determines to learn to drive and turns to the Axle School of Motoring whose wrathful instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan) arrives full of piss and vinegar.
Scott is yet another of life’s little challenges, a poster child for the miserable working class and Poppy’s polar opposite in conduct and attitude. In Leigh’s hands this means comic moments aplenty (Scott intoning the word “Enraha” as a spiritual driving aid) and scarcely concealed hostility (Scott’s shocking bigotry and repellent jealousy).
On the downside Poppy wants everyone to be upbeat along with her and that’s a tall order. Her incessant cheer delicately masks a gracefully bruised soul that her 30-year old single self refuses to acknowledge; a sparse loneliness of tentative depth. Relentlessly expecting the best of others as well as herself means Poppy’s bound to be thwarted more often than not.
The plot is spare, even minimalist; a series of snappy vignettes that let the irrepressible Poppy shine (at the chiropractor, visiting her pregnant sister, romancing a co-worker, etc.) while offering up a rangy assortment of clues as to what makes the girl tick. Her perpetual optimism feels morally authentic, not as blithely sentimental as the titles suggests.
Leigh is king of the keen observations on the English middle class -- think the venerable “Secrets and Lies” and “Vera Drake” -- typically dark bordering on depressing. That said the lively rhythms of “Happy”, and their buoyant leading lady, are a welcome breath of fresh air.