Sally Hawkins is Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky

I decided to see the latest Mike Leigh film in the cinema because (a) it focuses on a primary school teacher in North London (a job that means quite a lot in our household) and (b) it won the major prize in Berlin and was widely touted as being ‘upbeat’.

The screening at Leeds Vue, The Light was interrupted by a fire alarm, but the cinema management handled the ensuing melee quite well and it didn’t spoil the film for us (complimentary tickets was a nice idea too).

Overall, I thought the film was, as usual, impressive as a production with direction, cinematography and acting of the highest standard, but ‘upbeat’? – hardly. I do wonder what people remember about Leigh when they make these kinds of judgments. I’ve missed some of Leigh’s later films (Naked, Career Girls etc.) but I’ve seen the rest, including all the TV plays. Happy-Go-Lucky for me is absolutely in the mainstream of Leigh’s work. The central character is complex and interesting, but although I warmed to her as a good classroom teacher, I’m sure she would drive me mad in a few weeks. Some of the other characterisations are excellent. I liked the housemate, the school headteacher and a wonderful flamenco dance teacher.

The crunch in Leigh’s films comes with the creation of characters and situations which are essentially ‘real’ – we’ve all met these people and we’ve been in situations like this. But Leigh then pushes both characterisation and situation that little bit further. Here the typical situation is the lead character Poppy’s family argument with her two sisters, one a controlling conformist, the other a more ‘out of it’ student. But this is only a sub-plot next to Poppy’s main confrontation with her increasingly intolerant driving instructor. This has great potential and I can see that Leigh could be argued to deliver a justified pay-off that is certainly not conventional. My problem is that this involves yet another working-class character in a Mike Leigh film who is portrayed as a grotesque. It’s a sterling performance by Eddie Marsan (excellent in Vera Drake) but like The Office and other comedies of embarrassment, it’s very difficult to watch. For me, that extra push makes it difficult to accept the disturbance that Leigh engenders in the relationship – I can’t engage at the very moment Leigh makes his point.

I’m quite happy to accept that the fault is mine in having too rosy a view of the world, but I consistently find Leigh too cruel in his depictions. I’m also less interested in his stories because I can’t recognise any coherent political perspective. The Leigh film that remains enjoyable for me is Topsy Turvy, the Gilbert & Sullivan biopic. I want to enjoy all the skill and artistry, so I hope Mike Leigh comes up with a different kind of narrative soon.