Mike Leigh's "Happy" days

The celebrated director talks about his buoyant, bighearted new picture, "Happy-Go-Lucky." (Toronto Film Festival)

Published September 10, 2008 3:15PM (EDT)

At the heart of Mike Leigh's buoyant but decidedly not simplistic "Happy-Go-Lucky" is a single performance: Sally Hawkins -- who has had roles in several of Leigh's pictures, as well as in numerous British films and TV series -- plays Poppy, a North London elementary-school teacher who is, to put it simply, relentlessly happy.

We meet Poppy during the movie's opening credits sequence, where we see a girl with a wide smile, wearing a brightly colored crochet sweater, pedaling through London on her bike. She's laughing and smiling, seemingly for no reason; she waves to people she probably doesn't even know. She wanders into a bookstore and begins chattering, cheerfully, to the sullen clerk, who simply ignores her. She emerges from the store to find her bike has been stolen, which she treats as a big laugh.

The first time I saw that opening sequence, I wasn't sure I could stand watching this woman for the next 90 minutes or so. But that, I think, is part of Leigh's marvelous, meandering plan: Just a few scenes later, I wanted to know more about her, as it became gradually clear that Poppy's resolute happiness does not signal a lack of depth. Poppy isn't happy because she retreats from the world -- she's happy because she's so fully in it. Which doesn't mean that her life is one big laugh: She springs to action when she sees one of her students behaving aggressively, knowing that his brutish behavior is a symptom of his own unhappiness. She signs up for driving lessons and gets stuck with a weirdo driving instructor named Scott (played by marvelous English actor Eddie Marsan), a freakishly uptight guy with some strange and rigid ideas about race relations and a fearsome, volatile temper. But instead of recoiling from Scott, Poppy tries to cajole him out of his perpetual bad mood, as if she senses intuitively that his inflexibility is causing him a great deal of suffering. When Poppy goes to see a chiropractor, and he cracks her back, she giggles and says, "That hurts so much it makes me laugh," which could be a motto for the way she navigates the world around her.

Hawkins won the best actress prize at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, and that jury knew what it was doing: This is the performance to see this year, one that lots of people will be talking about through the fall and winter. (The film opens on Oct. 10.) Leigh knows what he's got in his star, as he made clear when I spoke with him here in Toronto. He also talks about the mistake of assuming that an optimistic picture is necessarily a simplistic one, and about the character he and Hawkins created, particularly her "natural, ordinary courage." (Listen to the interview here.)

I first saw "Happy-Go-Lucky" in Berlin, in February, and I have to tell you that in the first scene, I was afraid Poppy was going to drive me crazy. Then I remembered the lesson I learned from watching your movies like "Nuts in May" and "Abigail's Party," that I had to trust you. Sometimes you give us characters who are neurotic and difficult, but you weave things around so we come to care for them. The critic J. Hoberman once compared you to Charles Dickens. Does that comparison resonate with you?

That comparison resonates with me, and everything you said makes sense, except for one thing -- although of course you didn't really say this -- the thing about Poppy is, she's not actually neurotic at all. She's very together, very focused, and very open and honest, truthful with herself and everyone else, but she has a great sense of humor, and the capacity to be zany when she wants to be zany.

I'm very flattered by Mr. Hoberman's comparison. I'm greatly influenced by Dickens, and I love Dickens, so that's good news. I didn't know he said that.

But you can be forgiven at the beginning of the film for thinking, I don't know whether I want to spend time with this character. The first thing you see is Poppy on her bicycle -- she's being very nice, just waving at people. Then she's having a laugh with this very curmudgeonly guy in the bookshop. And then she has her bicycle stolen, and she's very philosophical about it.

The next scene, when she's been clubbing and things -- well, she's just one of the girls. It's all there for you to get the hang of her very quickly, and she's not at all neurotic. It's about seeing how one can deal with stuff in life.

Most of the critics I know who are seeing the movie for the first time have really loved it. And then there are people who've said that it doesn't deal enough with the dark side of life. But Poppy isn't closed in at all, and her openness is a very risky thing. Maybe people are making the mistake of thinking that because this is an optimistic picture, it's an uncomplicated one.

I agree. The problem, which has nothing to do with this film as such, is that some of the people that you are talking about are so marinated in the whole syndrome of what they've become, by dint of what they do, which is that they look at the world not in terms of the world itself but in terms of movies and in terms of what movies are and should be and should do. So a comment like "It should be darker," or "It should deal with dark things," is just ridiculous, and the notion that the film is simplistic because it's about optimism, because it's about someone who's an optimist -- is just deeply illogical, really, apart from being irresponsible.

The film is actually extremely complex, as you say. It deals with all kinds of tensions and multidimensional views of the world and has its own dialectic. That's all a very fancy way of saying that we're looking at real people, in a real way in the real world.

Obviously, there are things that happen in the film that are heightened: For example, at a certain point she hears some strange chanting and she goes into this dark place, and there's this tramp -- it's all about her openness and her natural, ordinary courage, and her capacity not to be judgmental, and her immediate instinct to listen and understand and love. That's what it's about, basically.

One of the ways movies work on us is that we make investments in characters, sometimes very early on in a picture. And with Poppy, I was filled with fear that something terrible was going to happen to her.

Sure, and that's because hard-wired into your expectations is that that's what happens in movies. The fact is, when threatening things do happen [in the movie], when the possibility sort of floats across the narrative, she's there to deal with it. Scott becomes extremely aggressive, but apart from anything else, Poppy's a consummate professional, and a sympathetic teacher, and she knows how to deal with children and childish behavior. He's a grown child, and she knows it. She can see what he's about, and she deals with it.

In that scene with Scott, she's so empathetic, you can tell she feels pain at having caused pain, even though she didn't intend to. The look on her face is just devastating.

When people say, as some people do say, "Well, she was completely relentlessly happy, and I hated her and wanted to kill her by the end," I don't know where they were in that moment you just described. Where the fuck were they? I don't know, I don't get it basically.

Sadly, we're talking about some kinds of journalists -- people actually do lose their connection with their souls, because they become so cynical by the very nature of doing [their work], and I think it's very sad.

Well, they may spend too much time in the movies and not enough living.

Yeah -- well, I think that's right.

I wanted to ask you about Sally Hawkins, whom I know you worked with before, in "Vera Drake." How did you find her?

She was also in "All or Nothing," if you remember. I found her in the conventional [way], of my casting director saying, "You have to meet this girl. She's fantastic." And she came in, and I met her, and it took me no longer than one second to understand what she meant. I've worked with her three times, and I've gotten to know her very well. She's done very interesting work in other films, too.

She's in the Woody Allen movie "Cassandra's Dream."

Yeah, with respect, she is in that film, but neither she nor anybody else is interesting in that film because the film isn't interesting.

She's the best thing in it.

Well, she is, because she's the most truthful thing in it. That's to her credit. But I'm certain that isn't what I, or what she'd, put on her C.V., in terms of what we're talking about. [In] her main role in that television adaptation of "Persuasion," and that film "20,000 Streets Under the Sky," her role in the television adaptation of that book, "Fingersmith" -- she's just terrific. Well, anyway, I just knew this was time to put her in the center of things and have her carry a film. I knew she could do it, and I was certainly not wrong.

We share a great sense of humor. I knew we could collaborate to create a really interesting, rich and positive character.

Poppy is a fearless character -- she's so optimistic and open and will just kind of march into a situation. But all human beings have fears and anxieties, and I was trying to think what Poppy's fears might be.

Yes, oh yes, and if I say this, you'll immediately say, Of course. She worries that other people are not happy and not fulfilled. She worries for that kid, she worries for Scott, she's concerned for the old guy that she meets, she's worried for her sister. She cares. And all her worries and fears are about those things.

Now if you say no, you don't mean that, you mean fears for herself, she's just got the worries we all have, about "Are we doing it right?" She's not smug. But at the end of the day, yeah, she's not someone who sits around fretting and procrastinating and introspecting in an unhealthy way. She gets on with it.

* * *

Since this is my last day covering the festival, here's my only chance to make a special plea for some of the movies I've seen over the past week that have slipped through the cracks in the rush of daily filing -- as well as to lament the ones that I've missed, among them Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler," which took the top prize in Venice and features a lead performance by Mickey Rourke that many of the critics here in Toronto are raving about. That one will have to wait for later. Among the festival pictures I did get to see, there are several that deserve a shout-out: Arnaud Desplechin's "Un Conte de Noël" (which my colleague, Andrew O'Hehir, wrote about beautifully from Cannes, and which will soon get a New York opening); Michael Winterbottom's "Genova," starring Colin Firth and Catherine Keener; and a lovely, low-key little picture from the Québécois director Léa Pool, who made a fine coming-of-age movie in 2000 called "Set Me Free.") This one, also a coming-of-age story, is called "Maman est chez le coiffeur" ("Mommy Is at the Hairdresser's"), and it's a perfect example of how a director can take a story we all think we've seen a hundred times before and treat it with such a light touch that it feels fresh and vibrant.

Nearly 10 years ago now -- more than a century in movie years -- I wrote a feature about the sorry state of romantic comedies, and it's a subject I revisit, unhappily, every time another miserable example limps down the pike. Lord knows there are plenty of mainstream romantic comedies being churned out, and we've seen at least some slight -- if only temporary -- improvements in the genre with pictures like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up." But so many of the romantic comedies being made are of the Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey variety (even if they don't actually star McConaughey or Hudson), pictures that work so hard at being sparkling that they only grind you down.

As an antidote, I offer David Koepp's "Ghost Town," opening widely on Sept. 19, which stars Ricky Gervais as a socially awkward dentist who's called upon -- under extremely unusual circumstances -- to smooth out some marital issues between Greg Kinnear and Téa Leoni. Koepp has written scripts for films by the likes of Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma, and in 2000 he himself made a marvelously inventive supernatural thriller, "Stir of Echoes." "Ghost Town," which Koepp wrote with John Kamps, pulls off the tricky task of being both breezy and smart, and as a bonus, the genius Kristin Wiig appears in a small role as a spray-tanned physician, the kind of woman you should never let near your privates. There's hope for romantic comedy yet, as long as filmmakers like Koepp are in there pitching.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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