Sally Hawkins is “Happy-Go-Lucky”

Even before she starred as a Victorian lesbian pickpocket in the BBC’s 2005 adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, I was a fan of British actress Sally Hawkins. I had caught sight of her the year before in a very different role: as a shy, quiet, affluent girl called Susan in Mike Leigh’s drama Vera Drake. Susan is raped by a man whom her mother was pushing her toward, and later has to go for an abortion. Hawkins’ totally understated portrayal of her character’s shame and misery — along with her inability to communicate with anyone about her experience in the England of the 1950s — was probably the most powerful thing in the film for me.

If I’d had a better memory, I might have realized that I’d seen Hawkins in a role even before that: as Diana Lethaby’s feisty maid Zena Blake in the BBC’s 2002 adaptation of Tipping the Velvet. Like her role in Vera Drake, however, that was a supporting part that only gave Hawkins a limited opportunity to show what she could do.

But now Hawkins has a role that puts her center-stage, as the lead character in Mike Leigh’s new film, Happy-Go-Lucky. Currently screening in the U.K., the film has already won Hawkins the Silver Bear for best actress at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival and is due for release on Sept. 26 in the U.S.

In the film, Hawkins plays Pauline “Poppy” Cross, a 30-year-old elementary school teacher living in a shared London house with her best friend, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman). Like most Mike Leigh films, the story is focused on detailed social interactions that reveal character, rather than on huge dramatic events.

Poppy has her bike stolen; she decides to take up driving lessons; she joins a flamenco class with a fellow teacher; she goes to visit her married, pregnant sister and brother-in-law by the sea. She prepares her lesson plans and deals with a boy who is bullying other children; she has a night encounter with a homeless man; she develops a romance with a male social worker she met through her teaching work.

Throughout the film, the focus is on Poppy’s joyous character and determination to make the best of things, as contrasted with the sometimes depressed and angry characters around her. Poppy’s character is so relentlessly and at times manically “up” — even giggling her way through a physiotherapy session after hurting her back where she is obviously in quite a lot of pain — that while the film has received a lot of critical praise, some viewers have found her almost unbearably grating.

I’ll admit that I’m one of them. Being a Hawkins fan, I wanted to like the film more than I actually did. Hawkins herself is such an intelligent, sensitive actress that there are times when those qualities shine through, particularly in Poppy’s quieter moments. When she comes across a homeless man who is complaining loudly but incoherently, she behaves as if he is making perfect sense. Gazing into his face, she says quietly, “I know.” At moments like this, the film seems to raise the question of whether Poppy is really as happy as she says she is, or whether she is just someone who responds to life with a lot of courage and an upbeat attitude.

There are times, though — as in the physiotherapy session — when Poppy seems so manic, giggly and on edge that she hardly seems like someone who would be able to function in normal society. The conception of the character didn’t seem totally consistent to me.

All that said, it’s definitely an interesting, ambitious film (as Mike Leigh’s films invariably are). And although there aren’t any overtly gay characters, the film might also be of particular interest for lesbian viewers in the way that it basically shows Poppy and Zoe as heterosexual life partners. Aware of how close their relationship is, they jokingly flirt with each other. When Poppy’s racist, homophobic driving instructor makes the assumption that she and Zoe are a couple, she doesn’t bother to contradict him, instead smiling and going along with the assumption.

Have you seen Happy-Go-Lucky? What did you think of it?