That isn't to say that the world is not still a cold place in Leigh's latest, his tenth feature. Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the teacher in question, finds herself confronted with Leigh's dire real world from the very beginning. In the very first scene, Poppy finds herself in a Haringey bookstore getting snubbed by a self-serious, Burning Man reject too invested in a philosophy tome to speak. Returning to the street, in an open nod to De Sica's Bicycle Thieves and the first of several minor injustices Poppy must cope with, the peppy educator finds her bike stolen but can only cackle in disbelief at the crime.
Leigh developed much of the dialogue through improvisation, as he often does, and there's a natural excitement in watching Poppy's exchanges teeter on the brink of outright awkwardness. The filmmaker focuses much of the film on Poppy's interactions with her driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan). A once-was punk and blatant racist, Scott finds Poppy's very being offensive, but that doesn't stop him from developing a small obsession with her. Intense even when not yelling, the great Marsan sticks Scott's face on permanent sneer and never lets his temperament wander too far from hostile. To Scott's dismay, Poppy finds the feral instructor's opposite and a proper boyfriend in Tim (Samuel Roukin), a social worker who visits the school when a child begins showing signs of abuse.
Despite the appearance of these two strong male presences, Lucky is an ambitiously female-centric work (Film Comment's Amy Taubin went as far as to call it a "corrective" to Sex and the City). Poppy is the middle daughter of three sisters, the eldest of which lives in the suburbs and is married with a kid on the way. The younger, of course, is a good-time girl with little shame in loudly criticizing a recent lay while she's in public. A trip to see the critically unhappy older sister and her wimpy husband allows for some subtle discourse on the role of women, but Poppy remains gleefully ambivalent.
Is this happy veneer just a coping mechanism? Rather, Leigh suggests that, happy or unhappy, one's view of life has more to do with chance than upbringing. Poppy's roommate and best friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman in a strong, funny debut performance) registers just a few notches above cynical; a fellow teacher seems to register just a few below hopeful. But Poppy doesn't work in the median. In fact, she only settles down when dealing with a hobo derelict or handling one of Scott's more visceral outbursts.
Extreme personalities are nothing new to Leigh's work: Consider Vera Drake, who carried her loving mother routine even as she operated, or the meta-atheist depravity of a homeless rapist named Johnny in Naked. Poppy is the other side of the rainbow, a person of great lightness but not one of light intelligence. Hawkins' lovely performance renders Poppy a creation of very sincere femininity, and the thought that Poppy is less complex than other Leigh characters simply because she's happy strikes me as boorish and pretentious.
Perhaps the most welcome element of this lively character study is the fact that Poppy's personal problems are left that way, not extroverted into an American-friendly goal or substantial purpose. (Leigh has stated that he'd sooner stick steel pins in his eyes before dealing with Hollywood.) Poppy leaves the film very close to how she entered it but this doesn't lessen the ordeals that Leigh sets out for her. Leigh, whatever his worldview, has made peace with the fact that some people exist in absolutes. Whether his audience has is yet to be seen.
It's always sunny in Sierra Leone!
Run time: 118 mins
In Theaters: Friday 18th April 2008
Box Office USA: $3.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $18.1M
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Production compaines: Thin Man Films
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Fresh: 142 Rotten: 11
IMDB: 7.0 / 10
Director: Mike Leigh
Producer: Simon Channing Williams
Screenwriter: Mike Leigh
Starring: Sally Hawkins as Poppy, Alexis Zegerman as Zoe, Eddie Marsan as Scott, Samuel Roukin as Tim, Sinead Matthews as Alice, Kate O'Flynn as Suzy, Sarah Niles as Tash, Sylvestra Le Touzel as Heather, Karina Fernandez as Rosita, Flamencolehrerin, Stanley Townsend as Stadtstreicher, Caroline Martin as Helen, Oliver Maltman as Jamie, Nonso Anozie as Ezra, Andrea Riseborough as Dawn