In defense of ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’

Posted by · 9:02 am · September 24th, 2008

Brad Brevet, over at Rope of Silicon, likes “Happy-Go-Lucky.” A lot. And like me, he’s a bit perturbed by some of the hostile criticism that has been lobbed at the film, and its protagonist Poppy in particular — such as Jeff Wells’ wildly off-base (to my mind) accusation that the film is guilty of “emotional fascism.”

In response to such critiques, Brevet has written a smart, thoughtful defense of the film. (I praise it not only because he quotes extensively from my own review, though that’s an obvious point in its favour. Ha ha.) The core of his argument is that the film is less an isolated character study than it is a study of its own audience, and how they respond to character:

Happy-Go-Lucky was hardly about any of the characters in the film as much as it was about the audience watching the film. Taking that into consideration, film critics are perhaps the absolute best audience for this film. Critics of any sort can be cynical and jaded creatures and when confronted with someone that is altogether happy despite not having an abundant amount of wealth or status (i.e. Hollywood reasons to be happy) it annoys the cynical sort.

I say this in general terms and without direction of blame or accusation, but it is what comes out of judging art as a profession. Why else would the most trying times for the film’s central character be met with the most glowing responses? As Lodge said, the character hasn’t changed … As much as Poppy may want to change the folks she encounters inside the film she ultimately ends up changing the people watching.

After initially being uncertain of what Leigh was trying to communicate with the film (as Brevet picks up in my review), I’ve got more of a handle on it over the months — for me at least, it’s a story about the impossibility, even the inadvisability, of coerced personal change. What I think critics such as Wells assume too easily is that Leigh is wholeheartedly endorsing the world view of his protagonist.

What makes “Happy-Go-Lucky” special is that it generates this level of discussion — I’ve been engaged in more arguments, both in person and online, about this film than any other this year. It’s certainly grown on me over the months (though Brevet’s filleting of my review makes it sound rather harsher than it was), and I stand right with Brevet in advocating its Oscar-worthiness across the board. He thinks at least five nominations are in order, by the way.

→ 10 Comments Tags: , | Filed in: Daily

10 responses so far

  • 1 9-24-2008 at 9:10 am

    Nick Plowman said...

    I’ll finally get around to reviewing this next week sometime, and you can bet your ass I am going to praise, and praise and praise ;)

  • 2 9-24-2008 at 10:38 am

    Brad said...

    Guy, thanks for the linkage and your kind words. I also read your comment on the article and just wanted to say I didn’t mean to insinuate your review was harsh, it was just a well thought out review and offered up so much juice I guess I just lapped up the juiciest bits. :)

    I really hope this film gets more attention because I think it does offer up so much more than just a “happy-go-lucky” character, which is what seems to be the only thing so many reviewers are taking away from it.

  • 3 9-24-2008 at 12:26 pm

    Adrianna said...

    Interesting article and interpretation. I agree that the kind of discussions it generates are what Leigh seems to excel in. The approach in the discussion seems to make more sense to me. I kept wondering, this is a Mike Leigh movie, set in a miserable grey England of despair, loss and occasional hope, right? Wouldn’t there be enough grim edges to satisfy most people or do they just see the title and not really watch the movie?

    I look forward to seeing this, because it’s a question I ask myself. Like most of us, I work for a living and try to be a courteous positive professional. But my patience is tried by those few clients or colleagues who are unmannerly, entitled, inconsiderate louts. The dregs of these imbecilic boors like to sneer at people who remain cheerful towards them as though that courtesy deserves to be stomped on, because it’s unbearable to them.

    So I already feel invested in the discussion, even though I haven’t seen the movie. My guess would be that it’s about whether it’s actually possible to have a positive attitude in grim modern England and what it would look like watching someone try to stay upbeat, and where that quality is necessary for a culture. Since Poppy teaches children, I’d say yes, save that quality, it’s needed there, as any one who has ever been trapped as a child with a morose, critical, negative teacher knows.

  • 4 9-24-2008 at 1:09 pm

    Patrick said...

    I SORT of enjoyed this film. I liked the issues it raised; how pessimism and optimism intertwine with each other in every day life, yet hardly ever bring about a change in the other.

    I quite enjoyed Hawkins, although I thought it was all a bit contrived and ultimately I didn’t believe in it.

    I was lucky enough to score an interview with Mike Leigh, Hakwins, and Eddie Marsan for my student paper. As sure as his reputation Leigh was a bit prickly, and he seemed to think the film as being a huge important piece of work. “You go on an emotional journey when you watch this film,” he said at one point, which put me off a bit, as I certainly hadn’t.

    My main problem with the film was that I felt it was slanted against anyone who wasn’t as ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ as Poppy, anyone who didn’t share her point of view. For instance, WHY was the man in the book-shop so unnecessarily rude to her? That is just NOT how 99% of people would have reacted in that situation if a dappy girl had said hello to them in a bookshop where they worked. Same with Scott too, his racist bigotry was TOO overblown and felt like a deliberate foil to Poppy, and therefore unbelievable. I’d be interested if you see where I’m coming from here Guy.

    Also, I do have to concede, that although I liked the performance, the character of Poppy is irritating to a lot of people. The drunk scene at the beginning was painfully grating, and went on far too long. Also, my mum saw it recently and found the bit with the tramp excruciating, saying something along the lines of “WHAT was that scene with the homeless man about? What a complete tit she was. I was hoping he’d rape her.” Obviously she was joking, but you get the drift.

    Anyway I think Hawkins is out of the race now, Kristin Scott-Thomas seems a much safer bet in my opinion.

  • 5 9-24-2008 at 1:17 pm

    Patrick said...

    Also, I don’t agree that the film is more about the audience watching it than what’s actually on the screen. I think that’s a slightly overblown way of heaping praise on a film that is actually only really serving up a divisive protagonist.

    It’s easy to say, “oh, you didn’t like Poppy, that’s part of the point”, but in my opinion it’s a statement that doesn’t actually mean that much.

    There are a whole host of perfectly lovely people in my life that I find to be irritating, should the same reasoning apply here? I think not.

  • 6 9-24-2008 at 1:40 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Okay, lots of chew on here, but I can’t do so in much depth!

    Adrianna: That’s certainly a valid interpretation — the question Leigh’s asking isn’t so much whether it’s possible to stay optimistic (Poppy shows that it is, after all), but whether that’s necessarily a better way of living — or whether it isn’t, in its own way, anti-social. I’d be interested to hear your take when you see the film.

    Two things: It’s actually a misconception that grim social realism is Leigh’s trademark — as I say in my review, he’s made a number of films before — from Life is Sweet to Career Girls — that share Happy-Go-Lucky’s warmth of spirit and gentle comic tone.

    And beware of overgeneralising about “grim modern England” — the milieu of Happy-Go-Lucky, after all, is comfortable middle-class London. (I live there myself!) It actually shows the city as rather vibrant and, yes, happy — it’s not all council estates and crack whores around here ;)

  • 7 9-24-2008 at 1:54 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Sorry, I lost track of my dashes in that post.

    Patrick: Fair points all round, though I don’t agree that the film is weighted against anyone who doesn’t share Poppy’s point of view. (We know Leigh doesn’t, after all.) I think in scenes like the one in the bookshop, it’s actually Poppy who’s being shown as overly invasive in crossing people’s personal boundaries — the same line she repeatedly toes crosses with Scott. I think, in this regard, the film, while sympathetic to Poppy, is frequently as critical of her as it is of those who don’t respond to her benevolence — but that’s my interpretation.

    (And yeah, Leigh isn’t exactly a charmer in person. In the tutorials I’ve had with him, he takes no prisoners whatsoever — but he is a fascinating guy.)

    By the way, I totally disagree that Hawkins is out of the race — I think she still has a lot of momentum. And Hawkins and Scott Thomas’ performances are at such opposite ends of the tonal spectrum that I don’t see why it would be an either/or situation between them. They’ll both have devoted camps — I see no reason why both women can’t be nominated.

  • 8 9-24-2008 at 2:07 pm

    Patrick said...

    Yes, I see where you’re coming from Guy. I actually think it’s very interesting that you see the film as critical of Poppy in some instances. It would sit a lot better me with me if that were the case, although I must admit I didn’t ever sense such a shift. I’m just not sure Leigh would have been willing enough to divert the focus from Hawkins enough to capture a tone of criticism towards her. If that was his intention I don’t think it came across strongly enough in those scenes.

    Also you’re right to take issue with my lazy predicting there. It’s just I have been predicting Streep/Winslet/Jolie/Hathaway plus one of Scott-Thomas and Hawkins for such a long time now that it seems like second nature to place the two in mortal combat! It’s probably the case that one of the preceding four is in more danger. I do think, however, that Scott-Thomas is in a much stronger position if we are comparing.

    And as for Leigh, I sort of liked his attitude. It’s certainly to be hoped for and expected that he’d be a prickly old beast. He said at one point that he really liked Ellen Page in Juno, to which I rather foolishly replied “oh, really? More than Marion Cotillard?” He just looked at me in the most appalled fashion. APPALLED. He then said he wasn’t going to tell me who he voted for. It all felt rather bizarre since he looks like such a teddy bear.

  • 9 9-24-2008 at 5:29 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Wow, Mike Leigh liked Ellen Page … that is something I wouldn’t have guessed in a million years. That’s gold, right there.

    As for the Best Actress race, I have an unshakeable feeling that at least one of the “big three” of Streep/Winslet/Jolie is going to fall out, if only because everyone is predicting them, which doesn’t sit right with me. I suspect Jolie. You heard it here first ;)