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  • Feature: Actress Sally Hawkins of Happy Go Lucky

    Mon, 10 Nov 2008 13:40:26

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    I worry that she will not be as kind or as bubbly as the character she portrays, but there is a childish exuberance as she walks into the room, her right arm in a silk paisley sling. As she sits down she flashes a smile that seems wholly sincere if not slightly hesitant—as if she had just been dreaming and haphazardly wandered into a room where an eager reporter awaited her words. My worry is mollified as her eyes grow wide at the first question and she readily engages, even though I am covered in bicycle grease and sweating from the unplanned five mile bike ride I've just completed. Her smile pushes back on my ill-will toward my roommates and I realize the amazing synchronicity of interviewing Sally Hawkins, fresh off her stint as the infectiously charming Poppy in Mike Leigh's latest, Happy-Go-Lucky.

    "I'm just trying to stay tethered," she remarks with complete sincerity as the conversation turns to the growing awards season buzz around the film. Hawkins is, outside of the United Kingdom, the relatively unknown daughter of two renowned children’s books authors and illustrators with extensive theatrical work and lauded performances in Leigh's Vera Drake and, more recently, In Bruges. Now, the Hollywood outsider blushes as she discusses her newest work, betraying a simple, youthful excitement. "It's wonderful for any actor for your name to be in the same sentence as Oscar or award...because from where you start—and you start from nothing—it was just an empty room, me and Mike kind of looking at each other. To think now where we are with it and that wonderful reaction [we've received] is really just extraordinary."

    With [Mike] Leigh, Hawkins remarks, 'you start from nothing and you build up this relationship, layering it and layering it, trying to create this very real world.'

    Like all Leigh's films, Happy-Go-Lucky began as an open-ended idea that eventually entered a period of extended improvisations and rehearsals through which the narrative was pieced together and solidified. With Leigh, Hawkins remarks, "you start from nothing and you build up this relationship over six months, layering it and layering it, trying to create this very real world." In Happy-Go-Lucky the real is omnipotent and Hawkins is the sieve through which we interact with that reality. There is darkness and there are problems but Poppy is always learning and trying to reframe the negative in some sort of positive way.

    Take, for example, Poppy’s gradually intensifying relationship with Scott (Eddie Marsan), the driving instructor who is as angry as she is happy. He sees the world as one of an inherent darkness and finds that darkness overwhelming. In a gut-wrenching, hyper-real climax, Scott’s instability manifests itself as a terrifying danger. “Because she's such an extraordinary coper with life,” Hawkins says, Poppy "is able to, as far as she can, sort of see around the other side and work out the best possible way in reacting to him and dealing with him.”

    It is in this constant reframing and repositioning of herself in regard to those around her—this inherent understanding of the human psyche—that Hawkins proves most deft. She is infinitely empathetic with those around her, however, she is as equally vulnerable as she is impervious. She comes across as a very careful balance of naiveté and maturity.

    In another scene, one that deserves serious consideration during awards season not only because of Hawkins' understated performance but also for Stanley Townsend’s rendering of a mumbling, emotionally pained homeless man, Poppy’s greatest strengths are further illuminated. Drawn to the man by a “sort of weird song or mantra,” Hawkins looks at him in a way that says more than any dialogue ever could. A strange, uncomfortable electricity seeps into the audience, as those on the screen are “both sort of trying to work each other out.” The man is “extraordinary and important and he has an important story to tell. She doesn't know what it is or she can't understand it but that doesn't really matter.”

    This ambiguity, this sense of unknowing, seems to highlight Hawkins’ character’s modus operandi and the ability she has to connect with her audience. You are drawn in by Poppy’s smile and innate goofiness and you feel that she is someone you should know, someone you need to know even though you have serious apprehensions about that need. These apprehensions, your fear of Poppy’s hyper-happiness, are diffused because “you know this is important,” even though, as Hawkins explains, “you don’t know why.”

    Poppy wishes—with her eyes, her off-beat humor, her infectious laugh—as we all do, to connect with a world one cannot completely understand. There is no need for rationality when one deals in emotion. In a world of over-rationality and overstatement, Poppy’s energy invades your personal space and you begin to worry about Poppy’s well-being—about how the world, how Scott, is going to end up treating her. You are pulled in. You care. This is the power of Mike Leigh’s films and the actors that occupy them: his characters affect you viscerally and subtly break down the fourth wall of cinema.

    Even Hawkins seems prone to her protagonist’s charm. “What's fascinating to me now is hearing the reaction [to Poppy] because it's such a personal thing having been with her for such a long time, you feel so protective over her…[and now] she’s kind of put up there and judged. It's so incongruous that she should be judged in that way. She doesn't want that!” It is difficult to disagree, but that is the pivot point of a film like this. You want to hoard Poppy, bottle her essence, and apply it gratuitously to the world (in a less perverse way than in Perfume, of course).

    Often, it seems as if Hawkins and Poppy share much in common. She responds to queries with a healthy dose of reassurance, complimenting the interviwer on such “lovely questions” before going off on giddy tangents in response. There is, like Poppy, a simple lust for life in her eyes. In Hawkins’ mind, Poppy and she are like “parallel train tracks,” converging and splitting at points, but the actress is keen to add that Poppy is “on another level.”

    She is a character, beautifully rendered and distilled so that she becomes something to strive for. An impressive light to follow in the hope that one may perhaps achieve an ounce of Poppy’s personality.

    As you lose yourself watching Poppy on-screen you cannot forget that there is a real world out there, there are real people in your own life to deal with. Sally Hawkins is merely a carrier of a message, idealized and hopeful in its aim. However, at some point you realize you have to leave your characters at the door on your way home, as you’ve done with Jake Gittes and Antoine Doinel. You must return to life outside the cinema and all of its brightness even if it doesn’t seem to compare because, as Hawkins says, “that makes [life] exciting and makes you want to go back to work.”

    With one last smile and a handshake less awkward than I imagined, her slung arm and all, the brief foray into Poppy’s world was over. Stepping outside and reaching for my BlackBerry to dial my roommate—blackened fingerprints covering the phone—I caught myself smiling. She really was happy-go-lucky. Go figure.

    —Alex Cripe

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    Tags: Sally Hawkins, Mike Leigh, Eddie Marsan, Stanley Townsend

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