Isn't it ironic?
Film-goers, novel readers, television watchers and culture consumers generally are now on a continuous yellow alert for irony; narrators of every kind are regarded as about as trustworthy. So when irony appears to be withheld or abolished, the natural reaction is suspicion.
You could be forgiven for assuming that the title of Mike Leigh’s latest film must surely be ironic.
Happy-Go-Lucky? It is difficult to say the phrase out loud in anything other than a sarcastic voice.
Mike Leigh’s last film, Vera Drake, was, after all, a harrowing, dark masterpiece and the titles of his films Life Is Sweet and High Hopes appeared to signal that despite elements of sweetness, richness and happiness—always under-acknowledged in Leigh’s films—there is irony at some level.
But not here. And with this title, Leigh boldly challenges our easy assumptions about realism, pessimism and irony itself. It describes the heroine, Poppy, who is vividly played by Leigh regular Sally Hawkins, here stepping up to her first lead role and carrying it off with terrific confidence and gusto. She is a north London infant schoolteacher who is, well, happy-go-lucky. That galumphing, slack-jawed phrase is the only one that does justice to her relentless chirpiness. She has just turned 30 and lives with her best mate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) in a rented flat. She is happy to be single, goes clubbing with her mates and her younger sister who love her, and the kids at her school love her too. She speaks in an unending sort of larky-sarky backtalk, which is never funny in the way it might be if it was scripted as such, yet neither is it exactly unfunny, because Poppy’s ingenuous childlike enthusiasm makes it impossible to take offence.
You can spend the first 20 minutes of this film, or maybe the entire film, in a state of unbearable tension. When is Poppy’s secret tragedy or horror going to be disclosed? When will that smiley face turn into a scowl? When is she going to be revealed to be a self-harmer, a kleptomaniac, a Nazi or a prat?
The answer is never. But dark things do happen to Poppy. She has an uneasy encounter with her second sister, married and pregnant, who reproaches her for not caring about her future, though this situation calms itself presently. She spots a boy being bullied in the playground and calls in a social worker, though this itself is to open up a glorious opportunity in her personal life. Most seriously, she finds that her driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), is an angry, paranoid racist who is developing a sinister obsession with her. Yet even this situation—which in another sort of film would provide the violent and despair-inducing finale—is something that she handles with courage, intelligence and tact. The movie, like Poppy’s life, just freewheels along, swerving amiably this way and that. There is a funny and good-natured scene where she has a flamenco lesson, which Leigh puts in for the same reason Poppy takes the class: for a laugh.
The happy-go-luckiness of the movie asks us questions: Why are we so comfortable with irony? Is it a dishonest cop-out? Do we affect to disbelieve in happiness because we are afraid of being humiliated by life’s reversals? Have we spinelessly given up on happiness, in art as in life?
Maybe. Happy-Go-Lucky has been extravagantly admired since it premiered at the Berlin film festival earlier this year, and I find myself liking it more and more. Leigh’s trademarked cartoony dialogue, as ever lending a neo-Dickensian compression and intensity to the proceedings, is an acquired taste and I have gladly acquired it, though some haven’t. In the factory-farmed blandness of the movies, Happy-Go-Lucky has a strong, real taste.—