Friday, April 18, 2008

Mike Leigh Watches Gavin And Stacey, Is Reminded Of His Younger Self, And Tries To Imagine What It Would Be Like To Be Happy

A few years ago, during an interview about his film Vera Drake, Mike Leigh told me how much he disliked driving sequences. He couldn’t see the point of scenes inside cars; when he watched them, he wished the characters would get where they were going and get on with the action. It’s possible, of course, that Leigh was joking. In the same interview, he mentioned that he had tried to persuade another interviewer that his forthcoming play at the National Theatre would feature a cast of talking dogs.
The dog play never happened, but it remains a surprise to note that much of Happy-Go-Lucky is set inside a vehicle, as Poppy (Sally Hawkins) takes driving lessons from Scott (Eddie Marsan), an instructor whose frustrations are on the verge of boiling over into something quite unpleasant.
After Vera Drake and the much-underrated All Or Nothing, Happy-Go-Lucky marks a significant change of mood. It’s not entirely joyful; apart from Scott’s urban rage, there is a hint of hysteria behind the cheerfulness of his breathless heroine, and a sense that while the director admires the unrelenting optimism of his character, he doesn’t quite accept that it’s a rational response to her circumstances. But after the institutional bleakness of Vera Drake and the bruised humanism of All Or Nothing, even misplaced levity is something of a relief.
As always with Leigh, this is an ensemble film, but it is dominated by Hawkins. When we see her first, she is cycling round London, spraying good cheer behind her. When her bicycle is stolen, she sees it as a matter of sadness – “we didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye” – but not regret. Her driving instructor is a sullen sod, but she shrugs off his negativity, and soon there are signs that Scott’s frustration is a mask for his growing attraction towards Poppy.
The drama is domestic in scale, and while some critics have detected a similarity to the free-spirited French comedies of Eric Rohmer, it is a peculiarly London picture, capturing the dislocations of urban living, and the messy energy of the architecture around Finsbury Park. Compare Happy-Go-Lucky to Woody Allen’s forthcoming London misfire, Cassandra’s Dream – in which Hawkins gives a similar performance – and you’ll get a sense of Leigh’s precision. The look of the film is also very British; the scenes in a Tesco Extra petrol station have the rude beauty of a Martin Parr photograph, and there remains a sense of ambivalence in the way he allows his lower-middle class characters to mock themselves.
Oddly, the cheery tone is reminiscent of Gavin and Stacey, a TV comedy which operates almost as a tribute to Leigh (featuring Alison Steadman – whose turn in Abigail’s Party made Leigh’s reputation – and James “Smithy” Corden, who played the maladjusted chubber in All Or Nothing). Happy-Go-Lucky is Leigh repaying the compliment, though it contains enough darkness to suggest that his journey to the sunny side of the street may not be permanent.

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