Good teaching is about taking care with people. Good teachers are not instructors; they do not live and die by rules; they do not hector, or bait, or preside in judgement. Teaching, as a profession, is far more about being human than it is about being in charge. Mike Leigh’s new movie, Happy-Go-Lucky, is all about teaching. Its heroine may not have all the answers, but she’s got the right stuff as far as teaching goes. To watch her with her class, or as a student of flamenco, or as a learner driver, is to watch someone both grounded and open at all times… to watch a teacher; someone delighted by life; someone who knows the lesson isn’t ever about algebra or Shakespeare… it’s about who learns, not what.
Sally Hawkins plays Poppy, a Primary School teacher. Poppy is 30, single, and happy. She lives in a shared flat with her flatmate of a thousand years, Zoe (who’s also a Primary School teacher). Poppy has two sisters, one married and conventional, the other a stroppy Law student with eyes that scarcely ever stop rolling. In the course of the movie Poppy does not: a) find true love; b) inspire a previously underachieving class; c) sing along to the movie’s soundtrack. Sally Hawkins is not playing Bridget Jones. Poppy is someone who cherishes her life. She loves her job, her friends, her flat… and she would be dull, or irritating (let’s face it), but she isn’t a happy character in a rom-com; she is happy through choice. Unhappy people don’t surprise her, they get surprised: her joy is deeper than despair.
Acting isn’t the right term for what people do in Mike Leigh movies. In the literal sense that people are paid to pretend to be other people: there’s acting. But in the sense of most screen acting (i.e. pimping for Burger King or sobbing for an Oscar), Leigh’s actors wouldn’t qualify for extras, let alone stars.
Sally Hawkins is the sort of actress who would get two lines in most movies (“Doctor, I think he’s going into shock!” or “Argh! Zombies!” …sort of thing), but here she plays a starring role as if, at once, she wasn’t the star and as if she should be starring in more movies. She has a face that was made for smiling. She looks a bit sharp when her face is blank. Maybe that’s her secret, the reason Poppy can be happy and not seem outgunned by unpleasant people; because she could be unpleasant too, if she smiled less. It’s tough to play kooky or zany characters as real people, almost impossible to stop them grating. But Hawkins achieves the impossible because Poppy isn’t a chaste naïf (like Amelie) or goggley-eyed flibbertigibbet (like everyone Brittany Murphy has ever played), she is a woman of 30, who knows how she looks to other 30 year-olds, and who doesn’t fret. To get a proper measure of how well Sally Hawkins copes with the role, imagine Renée Zellweger as Poppy, expand the will-she-meet-a-man?!?-storyline until it takes over the movie, and start screaming.
Eddie Marsan and Karina Fernandez, as, respectively, Poppy’s driving instructor and her flamenco teacher, both step up to the unstoppable force that it Sally Hawkins, and survive her. Marsan, in particular, rebuffs easy empathy with (or mockery of) his Travis Bickle-esque little man; Scott might be a tinder box of self-loathing and conspiracy theories, but his stubborn pride (some might call it Captain Ahab syndrome) stops him blubbing in front of Poppy, and though he’s broken at the end, he’d still spit at her for hugging him.
Poppy knows she can’t solve everyone’s problems. That’s what stops her being naïve. Happy-Go-Lucky isn’t the story of a teacher who turns people’s lives around, it’s the story of a teacher who intercedes, and what it is about her that makes her intercede, not what happens after. We don’t know what happens to Scott, or to the boy in Poppy’s class who hits pupils. We don’t know what happens to the homeless man who Poppy meets one night. What we do know is that Scott was once like the boy in Poppy’s class and that the homeless man is a possible vision of Scott’s future. Poppy intercedes not in the knowledge that she can save these people, but because her job, as a teacher, is to pay attention.