Posts Tagged ‘Alexis Zegerman’

Hmmm – a slight confession. It’s an awful thing for a film-loving Englishman to have to confess to, but quite often I have a bit of a problem getting Mike Leigh and Ken Loach mixed up. Not so much in terms of their current work, but more when it comes to the back catalogue. I know that, in principle, the difference between the styles of the two men is very straightforward – if it’s fiercely committed, socially conscious, openly left-of-centre stuff (quite possibly featuring amateur performers and scenes depicting meetings) then it’s a Ken Loach movie, whereas if it’s acutely-observed, performance-driven and bittersweetly comic slice-of-life stuff (or, alternately, a Gilbert and Sullivan biopic), then you know that Mike Leigh is your man.

Being a ranting lefty ideologue myself I am naturally more of a Loach follower, but I try to keep an open mind, and someone recently lent me Leigh’s well-received 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky, an (would you believe it) acutely-observed, performance-driven and bittersweetly comic slice-of-life drama about modern London life. Hmmm.

Sally Hawkins plays Poppy, a primary school teacher living a fairly carefree existence, spending her time enjoying herself with her friends, trampolining (this is not a euphemism), and… oh, I don’t know, all sorts of BoHo stuff I expect, for she is quite clearly a Free Spirit. Then her bike is nicked, which prompts her to learn to drive. Unfortunately her instructor is Scott (Eddie Marsan), an extremely uptight and fastidious teacher, much afflicted with unreconstructed attitudes and worryingly prone to believe in any old nonsense he reads on the internet.

Needless to say the two do not get on, and… Well, to be honest, the thing about bittersweetly comic slice-of-life dramas is that they are not overburdened with what you’d actually describe as a plot. This film is not short on incident, but neither is there much sense of progression beyond the driving instruction scenes (which do not make up a great deal of the film).

I borrowed this film from a colleague who pitched it to me on the strength of it being an interesting disquisition on different styles of teaching (we are both teachers ourselves) and I can see how, if you put your head on one side and squint, this is sort of the case. Many of the characters in this film are teachers of one sort or another, and they do approach it in different ways – Poppy is very touchy-feely and intuitive, her flatmate (Alexis Zegerman) somewhat less so, while Poppy’s flamenco teacher (Karina Fernandez) is much stricter but at the same time very motivating. Scott, on the other hand, just invokes bizarre kabbala (he keeps chanting the name of the fallen angel ‘En-Ra-Ha’) and shouts a lot. But on the other hand, the film doesn’t seem to be dealing with this in any explicit way, except to say that Poppy is a good teacher because she is a nice person, but Scott is only a bad teacher because he’s had some tough experiences.

Beyond this the film really just seems to be a lot of actors Obviously Acting. People speak in hushed tones of Mike Leigh’s near-mythical method of working, using lots of improvisation, etc, etc, but here the result seems to have been quite a few self-indulgent performances. I am aware that a lot of film dialogue is not especially naturalistic, but given a choice between entertainingly witty and well-written non-naturalistic dialogue, and dialogue straining so hard to sound natural it instantly starts to sound fake (as in this film), I would choose the former.

I am aware that I am very much swimming against the critical tide in saying that I didn’t really like this film very much, but I have to call ’em as I see ’em. I also have to say that, rather than give Sally Hawkins an award, as so many people did, I would be more inclined to… actually, that’s not fair. Hawkins’ performance is convincing and coherent, and Poppy is certainly a very decent, responsible, and in many ways admirable human being. But she is also one of the most fantastically irritating main characters I have ever seen. The film publicity describes her as ‘irrepressibly cheerful’, ‘with a gift for making the most of life’. This mainly manifests itself as her being apparently incapable of shutting her mouth for more than ten seconds at a time, making a relentless string of whimsically comic (although not, to my ear, actually funny) comments, which she proceeds to laugh at herself. She floats through the film, usually with an inane grin on her face, regardless of everything else that happens. Watching her, I felt the urge to run violently amok, but as I was in my garret at the time I resisted this impulse.

It doesn’t really help that the film presents her in an unfailingly favourable light – she is apparently a good, creative, caring teacher (we see her planning an art lesson, which of course involves her putting a paper bag on her head and pretending to be a parrot), a reliable friend, she stops off on the way home at night to have long conversations with homeless people she’s never met before. I started to want her to be involved in a freak trampolining or flamenco-dancing accident which would force her to reassess her life. But no. All that happens is a visit to the physiotherapist and her hooking up with a boyfriend who is notably lacking in personality.

Oh, and some business with Scott. The weird thing is that the film clearly wants you to pity Scott – ‘You were an only child, weren’t you?’ Poppy sagely observes, later adding ‘Were you bullied at school?’ – but for me at least he came across as a much more engaging and sympathetic character than Poppy. Eddie Marsan manages to be genuinely funny, which is more than I can honestly say for Hawkins, and it was his scenes that made this film watchable at all for me (well, Zegerman is also very good in a supporting role). I would have been much more interested in seeing a film about Scott and his relationships with his various weird driving instructees, in which Poppy occasionally appeared as a hippy-dippy irritant, than this one in which Scott is a minor character, somewhat patronised by the film.

But there you go, I’m not a National Treasure of the British Film Industry, and it may be that this is just the sort of thing that happens when you mystically improvise the scripts of your films. Happy-Go-Lucky is beautifully photographed and features a couple of really nice supporting performances, and there is the occasional suggestion of interesting ideas going on deep down in the story. None of this can really make up for my overwhelmingly negative reaction to Hawkins’ performance and characterisation, though – like the rest of the film, it’s technically accomplished, but a bit of a drudge to sit through.

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