As this slightly worrisome Oscar season continues to shower precursor awards on the problematic film about mass advertising on the outskirts of a small community, spare a thought for the fleeting front-runners from earlier in the cycle. Barring a major surprise in my continuing catch-up on 2017 releases, I remain firmly on Team Saoirse for any and all Best Actress in a Leading Role trophies. Even so, I have tremendous affection for the work Sally Hawkins delivers in The Shape of Water. Of course, I also thought she should have been a contender about a decade ago.
In his best films, Mike Leigh’s unique approach to crafting characters and a story is surprisingly invisible. Leigh famously builds his art by bringing actors together, giving them softly defined roles and working through improvisations until he finds his way to what he wants. He embraces the collective to reach the personal. This isn’t apparent in the meticulous poignancy of Secrets and Lies or the tightly plotting of Vera Drake. In lesser hands, these films would be as freewheeling as a half-baked Judd Apatow comedy. Leigh makes them focused and pointed.
His new film Happy-Go-Lucky, on the other hand, seems like a product of an extended exercise in playfulness. It’s loose and shambling, prone to anecdotal meanderings and just scattered enough that it sometimes feels more like the first episode of a loopy television series, introducing the characters that will each get their turn in coming weeks. It plainly doesn’t hold together, and that absence of cohesion makes it slight. As it turns out, that’s a pretty good thing, too.
Happy-Go-Lucky follows Poppy, a British schoolteacher whose relentless cheerfulness is perfect for guiding young children in constructing bird masks out of paper bags, and equally effective for ribald nightclubbing, contentious driving lessons and the general murky travails of life. There are friendships to value, potential romances to cultivate and the cheery busywork of afternoon dance classes or trampoline exercise sessions to beam through. Challenges arise to be met, but not necessarily resolved. Leigh’s narrative is relaxed in its open-ended quality, as if Leigh is asking his audience to adopt Poppy’s conviction that everything will turn out all right. The proof of that doesn’t exist in tidy culminating scenes, but in our own optimism.
This film may also contain one of the purer manifestations of Leigh’s methodology in a performance. Sally Hawkins’ zippily wondrous turn as Poppy could easily be one sharp note, a comic conceit with no soul. Instead, Poppy is fully developed with layers that belie simplistic impressions of how this character should operate. Poppy’s character is built from the inside out with reserves of compassion, insight and intelligence that can get obscured by her regular bursts of cheeky laughter. Hawkins could have easily coasted on a spirited twinkle to play her. Instead, she has thought through every bit of her and the thoroughness makes everything richer.
I’ve seen the seams in Leigh’s work before, in the charmless maneuvering of Career Girls or the buckshot quirk of the acclaimed Life is Sweet. This time, it’s not a problem. Indeed, the metaphor needs revamping. Instead of seams, it’s the framework that Leigh has willingly put on display. This is one of the instances in which seeing the framework is just a reminder that the structure is sturdy.