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      Happy-Go-Lucky Review

      Happy-Go-Lucky poster


      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      The new Mike Leigh film "Happy-Go-Lucky" is a real pleasure, and besides being Leigh's most buoyantly comic feature it's a marvelous showcase for Sally Hawkins, who has worked twice before with the British writer-director. Hawkins, whose squinty smile is one of the bright lights of the fall, plays Poppy, a grade school instructor. Her good cheer is so intense, when we first see her - riding her bicycle through the North London streets, grinning and waving - you wonder: Is she tetched? She's tetched, all right: tetched with the sort of positivism many Leigh films (though hardly all) tend to marginalize as a nearly impossible dream. In "Naked," David Thewlis portrayed an excoriating Manchester lout. "Happy-Go-Lucky" is the flip side of "Naked," an ode to the power of irrational exuberance.

      Since the film premiered in England this year, debate has centered on the question of Poppy being either a delight or an unnerving reverse-harpy. Leigh and company know what they're doing. By making her mostly the former but a little bit of the latter, the film acquires some necessary tension.

      Leigh keeps the narrative machinery to a minimum. We learn a bit about where this woman has come from (cold, controlling father, unseen on camera) and what she has done with her young adulthood (some international travel; no long-term boyfriend). Poppy's bike is stolen in the opening scene ("didn't even get a chance to say good bye," she says, to no one in particular, looking at the spot on the street where her bike used to be). This paves the way for a series of driving lessons. Poppy's instructor is Scott (Eddie Marsan), a tense, withdrawn soul whose first lesson carries little harbingers of trouble. "You're my last student," the unsmiling Scott tells his new pupil, regarding the day's schedule. The sentence is shaded with a double meaning.

      "Happy-Go-Lucky" is a movie about teachers and students. Poppy spends half the movie trying to fly, making elaborate bird costumes for her preteen students, bouncing on a trampoline for recreation. Then she accompanies a fellow faculty member to a flamenco class. Karina Fernandez plays the instructor, and Leigh has never crafted a more adroit comic sequence than Poppy's introduction to the fiery, emotional universe of flamenco. These lessons open a window for Poppy; in a more sobering way, so do her weekly driving lessons, in which a twisted-up, lust-addled character - somewhat ham-handed in the writing, though Marsan's excellent - responds, in a panic, to Poppy as chaos incarnate. When he's not fixating on the impractical nature of her thigh-high boots he's going on about "the disease of multiculturalism."

      Just when you wonder if Poppy's going to stick to a single monochromatic line of attack, other colors seep to the surface. Some of these "reveals" are more effective than others. There's a late-night encounter between Poppy and a muttering homeless man (spectacularly well-played by Stanley Townsend) designed, too clearly I think, to show us a high-pitched character in a moment of low-key empathy. Like Brenda Blethyn in Leigh's "Secrets & Lies," Hawkins' Poppy is perched right on the edge of caricature, then pulled back from the brink just in time.

      All the acting is top-flight, including Alexis Zegerman's sardonic Zoe, Poppy's 10-years-and-counting flat-mate and fellow teacher. Through meetings with a troubled student in her class, Poppy gets to know a social worker (Samuel Roukin) who becomes a ripe romantic prospect for our heroine. It's a bit neat, but a lot of Leigh's work tends toward a heightened theatrical neatness. When it works, the result is a slice of life that, in terms of honest cinematic storytelling, is more like a slice of cake. (Leigh's recent films include the Gilbert & Sullivan portrait "Topsy-Turvy," which is a modern classic.) Hawkins is wonderful, and I happily saw "Happy-Go-Lucky" twice just to see the way Poppy handles her flamenco lessons. The character is right in sync with the lovely waltz themes traipsing through composer Gary Yershon's score - sprightly, witty, a tiny bit out of control. There's something of the harlequin in Leigh's conception of this bright, manic young woman. If Scott, the driving instructor seething with resentment, represents the choleric humor, Poppy is its opposite: a sanguine reminder that we're all here together, so cheer up, mate.

      MPAA rating: R (for language).

      Running time: 1:58.

      Starring: Sally Hawkins (Poppy); Eddie Marsan (Scott); Alexis Zegerman (Zoe); Kate O'Flynn (Suzy); Karina Fernandez (flamenco teacher); Samuel Roukin (Tim); Stanley Townsend (tramp).

      Written and directed by Mike Leigh; photographed by Dick Pope; edited by Jim Clark; music by Gary Yershon; production designed by Mike Tildesley; produced by Simon Channing Williams. A Miramax Films release.

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