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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Mike Leigh Makes Me Happy (Go Lucky)

I’ve never been a particularly big fan of Mike Leigh’s work. While many cineastes worship at his altar, thoroughly engaged by his down and dirty realism tinged with blue-collar social anxieties, I found myself somewhat disengaged by his films. I distinctly remember a friend of mine recommended Naked to me, telling me it was one of the best films she’d ever seen and Mike Leigh was an enormous talent. When I popped in the VHS – yes, it wasthat long ago – I found that Leigh was indeed a talent but it simply wasn’t for me. It’s hard to put my finger on it exactly because there are a lot of things in that film – and many of Leigh’s films – that would usually appeal to me in general.

The mixture of the deliberate pacing, the brown and blue color palette he seems to favor, and I find much of his dialogue to be a bit too on-the-nose. Ultimately, however, what I haven’t liked about Leigh’s films is more visceral and I can’t really pinpoint what it is exactly that turns me off. From Secrets & Lies to Topsy-Turvy (a departure for him, to be sure) to Vera Drake, I’ve wanted to love each and every one of them but found myself unsatisfied by the end and bored during the proceedings. The odd thing about it is that I’m rarely bored by a film; hell, I sat through Gerry in one sitting without my eyes fluttering once.

The acting is always flawless, of course, and Leigh has made me fans of actors like David Thewlis, Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent, and Imelda Staunton. He is a true actors’ director and I love that he populates his films with people that you wouldn’t ordinarily see headlining many Hollywood films; which is to say, of course, that they are not typically beautiful. But his actors embody their characters completely, imbuing them with an élan that is unique to Leigh’s films.

So why can’t I love Mike Leigh the way I want to? It’s like when I sit down to watch The Maltese Falcon, a film I am desperate to love because everyone talks about its greatness. And it has Bogart and Lorre and Greenstreet and it’s directed by John Huston and it’s a detective film and it’s got some great dialogue and it seems like all the pieces are there for me to love. And still, every time I sit down to watch it it falls flat and I feel guilty for not enjoying it more.

And then, just when I was ready to write the man off, he made a film that I really enjoyed -Happy-Go-Lucky. It’s got a lot of familiar Leigh elements in there – including the lower middle-class British characters – but it’s not as maudlin as his other work. There are definitely layers of grime underneath the sheen, but for the first time Leigh has made a film that is – at least on the surface – about an unabashedly chipper person.

Again, Leigh has brought an unfamiliar actor into focus. Sally Hawkins who, while she’s been a part of Leigh’s repertory company for his past few films, really shines in the lead role as the aptly named Poppy. What makes her special is her unrelenting verve and frequent giggles at all that life throws at her. She is not especially rich nor especiallypoor, but has a good job as an elementary school teacher and a great group of friends that look and sound nothing like Carrie and her depressed brood. Poppy appreciates her life because she has everything she really needs: good friends, a few drinks, a decent lifestyle, and it suits her just fine. Her biggest ambition is to learn how to drive and it is that ambition that brings about the principal relationship (conflict is too strong a word for this ambling picture) in the film.

Her driving instructor, Scott (brilliantly played by Eddie Marsan), is essentially the opposite of Poppy. He is a downbeat, downtrodden man who doesn’t care about small talk (Poppy’s specialty) or smiling. All he wants is to do his job to the best of his ability, it’s the one thing he knows he’s good at. But he gets increasingly frustrated by Poppy’s tendency to smile, laugh and generally try to have fun in an ordinarily dull situation. The film is about the contract between people who endure tedium and those who try to eschew tedium at every turn.

There are a few scenes that don’t work, notably an overlong passage where Poppy tries to talk to a homeless person. Leigh has a larger societal issue in mind that he’s trying to speak to in that scene, but it’s muddled. But for the most part, Leigh hits the right notes in painting a portrait of someone who seriously does not sweat the small stuff. We get to see her as not just a saint of a woman who smiles non-stop when she is confronted with a serious issue in one of her students and we see that she is capable of being serious. This is compounded by the scene where tensions between Poppy and Scott come to a head towards the end. It’s just that most of the issues in Poppy’s life don’t require that kind of seriousness.

So what did Leigh do differently on this film that made me finally respond positively to his work? To tell you the truth, absolutely nothing. This is a Mike Leigh film through and through and it has all the same cadences that you’re used to if you’ve seen his earlier work. Perhaps it’s just that I’m different, as often happens, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think that the real difference is that Poppy, as a character, is so endearing and appealing that it’s difficult to be uninterested in how someone like that operates.

It’s shot in some of the less touristy places in London and it’s a deliberate move because Leigh is trying to immerse the audience in these characters’ lives. It’s nice, for once, to see a film shot in a major city that doesn’t rely on backgrounds of the most famous sites to give us a sense of setting. Leigh, as always, gives us a great film to look at. But, more importantly, he gives us reason to care about the banal discussions that the characters have because character is what he’s most interested in. He’s unafraid to allow his characters to speak the way friends would speak to one another, without exposition and in shorthand. It gives the film – all of his films in fact – a verisimilitude that most films strive for but never quite achieve.

This is a film that really grows on you, and has actually gotten better in my mind as time goes on. While watching it I wasn’t as impressed I am in reflecting back on it. It’s a movie that might seem like a trifle at first, but really hits home when you wake up the next morning and think back on some of the issues raised. Perhaps Poppy isn’t a perfect person, but we could all do well to adopt some of her patience and vigor. I know I’m glad that I was patient enough to be rewarded by what I feel is Mike Leigh’s best, most complete work yet.

– Noah Forrest
October 7, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon