Last Friday here in old Britannia saw the release of one of the few things that actually qualifies as an 'event' in British cinema: a new Mike Leigh film. Listening to Andrew Collins fill in for Mark Kermode on his 5Live podcast (highly recommended, by the way), a couple of emailers were surprisingly vociferous on how they certainly weren't going to see Leigh's latest. Other reviews I've seen seem to have the common theme of the opinion that Leigh is a middle class director who thinks of himself as working class and makes films on that class that aren't realistic. As someone who's probably firmly (and obviously cluelessly) in the middle class, I can't really claim to know, and so my opinion of Happy-Go-Lucky isn't based on any judgments of its reflection of working-class life, although to an extent I recognized in the film much of the life of the people I know, so maybe it ultimately isn't working class centered at all- is Leigh simply studying the minutia of Britain in general, or even commenting on how divisions between working and middle classes seem to have blurred?
I can't even pretend to know. But Happy-Go-Lucky finally proves itself a real charmer, emerging from distinctly irksome beginnings (although I don't necessarily see these as problematic, but hold that thought) to provide an enjoyable, witty, insightful example of British life, with all its cross-cultural influences and dark aspects intact. Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is, as the title suggests, the eternal optimist, an almost ludicrously joyous person who laughs off the theft of her bike at the film's beginning- thus leading her to take up driving lessons with the bigoted, angry Scott (a superb Eddie Marsan), the sections concerning which are the film's highlight and perhaps center. It's with Poppy that every viewer's opinion of the film will rest: either her relentlessly chirpy demeanour will grate, or you'll find her a companion worthy of the two-hour sit. Or, just maybe, you'll have my own reaction: an instant wariness of the character, seeing in her everything that you dislike about some people you've met in your life; but then a thawing, a Leigh-induced realization that maybe Poppy's way of looking at the world is the only way to live within it happily, and maybe that if you take just a bit of her way of seeing things your life will light up a bit too. Poppy never entirely escapes being annoying but it's to Hawkins' credit that I came to like as much as I did: there's always an underlying warmth to her performance, but most crucially the hint that Poppy, despite appearances, isn't stupid or naive- Hawkins shades Poppy so that, without ever any kind of statement being given, its clear she knows exactly what a bad state the world around her is in, sees and works at its problems, but never lets them get her down, at least not to the people around her. Leigh, known for collaborating closely with his actors, is probably as much to credit for this but he does let the side down in the film's most glaring misstep: an extended encounter with a tramp (Stanley Townsend) comes out of nowhere and is dismissed just as quickly, and seems a rather odd attempt by Leigh to throw Poppy into a truly dangerous situation that she'd never have realistically gotten herself into. Happy-Go-Lucky didn't need it. There was enough underlying darkness already. B+
Before that, though, I took in another ballyhoo'ed Brit-flick, one that's soon to appear over on American shores, Son of Rambow. Highly positive reviews have pointed to the fact that this a big improvement over director Garth Jennings' previous effort, the turgid, slapstick The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and while that's certainly true, Son of Rambow, charming though it may be, has it's share of problems too. Bill Milner is utterly adorable as Will, a member of a sheltered religious family in the 1980s, whose life changes entirely when he meets the rebellious Lee Carter (Will Poulter) and Lee tricks Will into owing him a debt, leading to Will being the 'stuntman' on Lee's home movie of the recently-released Rambo. You don't need to have seen Rambo (I haven't) to enjoy this charming if minor film, touted as the feel-good film of the year and purchased by Paramount at Sundance for a massive $8 million, and, even if the film capitulates to a ridiculous subplot involving French exchange students, the central friendship is strong enough to retain the interest- and Milner is a real one to watch, superb both emotionally and in his comic readings and movements. B-