Happiness and Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky

Vic Thiessen, May, 2008

“Are you happy in your life?” the protagonist in Mike Leigh’s latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky, asks her new friend. The response: “That’s a big question!”

Indeed it is. And it’s a question that films have been asking for a long time. In recent years, arthouse films and realistic dramas have treated the question as if a positive answer is virtually impossible in our society. Most of them (e.g. Happiness) are depressing films which suggest that happiness is at best elusive and at worst the product of deluded dreams, for misery is always just around the corner waiting to pounce on us.

Leigh, my favourite active British director, is known for making exactly such dark and dismal realistic dramas, in which people are either utterly cynical about life or are struggling to catch just a glimpse of happiness (e.g. Secrets and Lies, All or Nothing, Naked, Vera Drake, to name some of my favourites). And yet, one of the reasons I love Leigh’s films, which are so truthful about life in the UK, is that they always contain elements of hope, happiness and goodness.

But Happy-Go-Lucky contains much more than element of happiness. Unlike, for example, Happiness, the title of this film is not meant to be sarcastic or ironic. Happy-Go-Lucky really is much lighter than most of Leigh’s previous work. And yet I disagree with those who think this film contradicts that work. Darker elements intrude into the plot (such as it is) from almost the beginning, and the protagonist (Poppy, played perfectly by Sally Hawkins) is forced to deal with one challenge (to her happiness) after another throughout the film. Yes, some of these challenges are much more serious than others and require Poppy to pause for a while in her otherwise high spirits, but I don’t agree that the ending is particularly bleak or that Poppy is suddenly forced to see the light. To me, the film was consistent throughout and, aside from being lighter, it is a typical (and typically excellent) Leigh film.

As a typical Leigh film, Happy-Go-Lucky uses Leigh’s typical improvisational style, with most of the dialogue coming from the actors. Not everyone enjoys this style, but for me it imbues Leigh’s films with a reality found in few others. So even though Happy-Go-Lucky is a much lighter film, its characters and situations feel just as real as they do in Leigh’s darker films.

Happy-Go-Lucky is centred on the character of Poppy, a single 30-year-old primary school teacher in north London. We become intimately acquainted with her happy-go-lucky personality and how it affects the people in her life, most especially her driving instructor (played magnificently by Eddie Marsan), whose personality is the opposite of Poppy’s. Like many European films, Happy-Go-Lucky is more a slice of life film than a plot-based one, and I didn’t find every part of the film engaging (especially in the first half), but the film works brilliantly as a whole.

Like all of Leigh’s films, Happy-Go-Lucky is ultimately life-affirming, making us think about how we live our lives and how what we do affects those around us. It shows us people who are waiting for happiness, people who are convinced they will never be happy, people who see the meaning of their lives as preparing for happiness in some distant future, and Poppy, who just lives happiness moment by moment, as if it’s a state of mind that can face (and provide strength for) all challenges and just make the world a brighter place.

It’s not easy being happy in a world full of so much suffering, even in a wealthy society like ours (where computers keep breaking down and where people steal your credit card account - both happened to me today). But there was much suffering in the time of Jesus, and yet, do we not believe that he was frequently happy? Are we, as followers of Jesus, not called to share the joy of the reign of God even in the midst of suffering? I know people like Poppy personally, people who possess a quiet strength, resilience and equanimity that can be shaken but never shattered. I frequently wish I was more like them.

At a time when so many of the best independent films are full of gloom and dysfunction, I am thrilled that recent releases like Juno and Happy-Go-Lucky can use upbeat films to give us both real characters and some positive inspiring role models.

So, are you happy in your life? I think it’s a question that Leigh is directing at all of us.