Feature: Mike Leigh and Happy Go Lucky
Fri, 10 Oct 2008 12:25:43
Mike Leigh Videos
Jean Genet once argued that poetry was not some divine, sensuous act, but rather that it was born "on Saturdays, when, to clean the rooms, housewives put the red velvet chairs, gilded mirrors, and mahogany tables outside, in the nearby meadow.” Over the past several decades acclaimed writer-director Mike Leigh seems to have proven this musing true, injecting the everyday, the mundane, the relevant problems of society into his undoubtedly human conceptualization of cinema.
“The joy of making the film is the journey of discovery of what the film is.”
It is his quest for the organic and his maverick approach that has provided him and audiences with a greater appreciation and understanding of the human condition. His scripts are not written but born from extended, rigorous improvisations. For him, cinema is a reflection of life and “the joy of making the film is the journey of discovery of what the film is.” In other words, for Mike Leigh, films should aim to be microcosms of life—one is never certain what comes next and how one should proceed. He sees and shows us the world as it is, from “real” peoples’ vantage points, without the hackneyed kitsch and overbearing need for irony that so many "independent" directors deem necessary. He attempts, and often finds great success, in inviting willing parties into the muck—to wander around and confront what Schopenhauer calls the "dark night of the soul."
His new film, an invigorating and lovingly molded comedy is no different, although some are hesitant to accept Leigh as a strictly comedic filmmaker. After all he has, quite unfairly, been oft-labeled as bleak and misanthropic in his content and worldview, even facing accusations of misogyny for his 1994 masterpiece Naked. But, as Leigh himself told us, "with all due respect, it's just not true." If one were to look deeply at his work it is rife with stubborn and undying hope—a frustrated idealism. Acknowledging his reputation, Leigh states that this time he “wanted a film to be anti-miserablist.” This is not to say Leigh is simply responding to criticism, but merely doing what artists in other mediums do: exploring the same dark world with a new and very colorful light. "When it's your job to serve up a dish every time a diner comes 'round to eat," Leigh says, "you consciously do it on another dish." It is for this reason that many critics will claim Happy-Go-Lucky a great departure from his oeuvre, either because of its title or, as it were, its happy-go-lucky protagonist.
However, I would argue that Happy-Go-Lucky is less of a departure in terms of subtext, tension, and the questions posed by the filmmaker, than a continuance of previously broached ideas. It is simply and quite literally, life through a different lens. Leigh is the first to admit that the film is littered with much of the "same sorts of ideas; the same concepts [and] humor."
Happy-Go-Lucky centers on 30-year-old Poppy, masterfully played by Sally Hawkins, an elementary school teacher and undeterred bundle of cheer who seems innately capable of molding less-than-perfect circumstances into small windows of joy. "She comes from the real world...[an] ordinary, heathily dysfunctional family."
We meet Poppy as she cycles through London, framed by wide-shots bursting with primary colors, her face effusing a near-constant smile, broken only by the occasional, thoughtful glance and wave to a stranger. We immediately come to understand her motivations, her mode of action as contrasted by the stark, self-consumed and quietly sorrowful faces of those around her.
This understanding is replenished when, after exiting a bookshop in which she was aimlessly browsing—not without trying to rouse the less than amicable salesman, of course—Poppy finds her bicycle stolen. She does not hesitate, as most of us would, to laugh the situation off and even remarks that she did not get a proper goodbye. As Americans, we may find such unfettered happines bordering on delusion, but we quickly ascertain that this is not a film lathered with sunshine and flowers. After all, it is a Mike Leigh film.
Poppy is clearly an idealist but she does not seem to pander to those around her or, conversely, seal herself off from the ailing environs. She is simple in the sense that she does not understand how one could let the silly, irrational things in life come to dictate one’s happiness. Hers is not an empty, fabricated joy, though. Leigh feels and I would concur that as one “unravel[s] the layers...[one finds that Poppy] is completely focused, genuine, caring—committed to what she does [with] an anarchic streak” that Leigh feels is entirely healthy. She is in awe of the possibilities and the good of the world despite the problems inherent in it.
Poppy is an observer and, like Leigh, “a rank outsider.” She is understandably frustrated with many things in her life, but consciously chooses to be an agent of realistic optimism. She is painfully aware of the nature of the beast but nonetheless attempts to make a difference, to increase her knowledge of humanity.
The quiet tension of the film then and, ultimately, much of Leigh’s work seems focused on how one can go about interacting with and reacting to a world of growing cynicism in a way that is productive, thoughtful, and not only endearing but inspiring. In the subtext there is a subtle call for a return to a greater sense of community and the organic, simple pleasures of living.
The theft of her bike leads Poppy to enroll in driving tutorials with the increasingly unstable Scott (Eddie Marsan). During their lessons, Scott relies upon the unintentionally hilarious “En-Ra-Ha” method of teaching—a concrete, binding set of guiding principles. He muses ad infinitum on the degradation of social mores and notes everyone except himself as being responsible for his obvious misery. Poppy attempts to understand the socially “impotent” Scott as she tries to understand all those she meets, but Scott has turned so far within that he cannot see beyond his own selfish needs. In fact, he rarely takes his eyes off the road in order to engage his pupil.
As she attempts to pry Scott out of his shell, to explain that he does not have to see the world as he does, it is obvious that he is uninterested in heeding any advice and eventually the relationship degrades into a terrifying series of moments. Poppy, for once, seems incapable of connecting.
It is in her interactions with others that it becomes apparent that one may draw many parallels between this protagonist and other characters in Leigh’s past. Specifically, Leigh fashions an interesting dialectic between Poppy and Johnny from Naked in that both protagonists, idealists in their own right, seem to have a very firm grasp of the nature of the world and, in turn, the human condition. The difference is in their reactions to this knowledge.
To paraphrase Leigh, Johnny is virile but ultimately misdirected by his overt frustration and disgust with the world, whereas Poppy, in her moments of self-reflection—most notably in a scene with a back alley tramp—because of her openness, her life-affirming nature, her unshakable belief in the good of people, becomes an empathetic mirror for others to look into. Poppy connects and communicates in a way that subtly indicates not only her great understanding of the “constant, endless, feast of surprises” that is this life, but the director's as well.
Leigh's art is the abstruse portrayal of psychological inconsistencies, coping strategies, and the needs and fears of a society growing more and more consumed by the self, desires, by the rigidity of “En-Ra-Ha.” His is the art of the human condition, of communication and the greater narrative arc pushing all of us along through the backwaters.
Happy-Go-Lucky is not a major aesthetic shift for Leigh, but a reworking of sociological queries that have always concerned him. Among his canon, it can be seen as a continued fleshing out of the habitual mysteries of our species. After all, quoting Renoir, Leigh offers that, "every filmmaker carries on making the same film every time."