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In 'Happy,' Mike Leigh's World Is Not So Miserable


British director Mike Leigh is known for his often dark tales of working-class struggle, films like "Secrets and Lies" and "Vera Drake." Well, there's a new Mike Leigh movie out this weekend. It's called "Happy-Go-Lucky," and as Howie Movshovitz, reports it's something of a departure.

HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ: "Happy-Go-Lucky" opens with Poppy, played by Sally Hawkins, riding her bike, the epitome of the film's title. She bounces into a book store and gives a cheery greeting to its grumpily clerk.

Ms. SALLY HAWKINS (Actress): (As Poppy) Having a bad day?

Unidentified Man: No.

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) Not till I showed up, eh? Look like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I won't bite. Don't worry, I'm going now. Have a good day. Stay happy.

MOVSHOVITZ: Viewers familiar with Mike Leigh's movies have observed that Poppy is happier than most characters in this humorous but generally bleak observation of British working-class life. Leigh insists that he'd shown upbeat characters before. He points to the mother in "Life is Sweet" and to Vera Drake as characters who are helpful and optimistic. He says the change is in the movie itself. "Happy-Go-Lucky" is a different kind of film from his others.

Mr. MIKE LEIGH (Filmmaker, "Happy-Go-Lucky"): Having made the film, I realized that actually - I instinctively was making what I now call an anti-miserablist film. That's to say, a film that really says, OK, look, the world is in a disastrous state. There's a great deal for us to be gloomy about. Actually, there are people out there getting on with it in life being positive. Poppy, Sally's character in the film, is just such a person. And she is a teacher. Teachers are people who cherish kids, nurture the future. The mere act of teaching kids is an act of optimism really.

MOVSHOVITZ: But Sally Hawkins says, nowadays, people look askance of those who were optimistic and happy.

Ms. HAWKINS: People tend to associate happiness or being interested in the positive with dippyness or silliness, and we can be quite ashamed of that in Britain and think that there's, obviously, something must be something incredibly wrong with someone if you're happy.

MOVSHOVITZ: And Poppy is nothing if not optimistic. After her bike is stolen, the character decides to get on with it and take driving lessons.

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) This is your car?

Mr. EDDIE MARSAN (Actor): (As Scott) No, it' a company's car.

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) All right. What's your car like then?

Mr. MARSAN: (As Scott) It is my car.

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) Thought you just said it was a company's car. Make your mind up.

Mr. MARSAN: (As Scott) Have you got your provisional driving license?

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) Yes! I have it. There you go. That's me on a bad day.

Mr. MARSAN: (As Scott) Is that your real name, Pauline?

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) That's right.

Mr. MARSAN: (As Scott) OK. Everything seems to be in order.

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) Does it? That's good.

Mr. MARSAN: (As Scott) Now, have you ever had a driving lesson before?

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) Yeah. No, it wasn't really a lesson. It was in a Cadillac in Miami, bunny hop down the beach.

MOVSHOVITZ: In Mike Leigh's way of creating films, actors are already in character the first time they meet on the set. That's how Hawkins met Eddie Marsden.

Ms. HAWKINS: The way you see it in the film is exactly how it happened in rehearsals. Poppy rang up a driving school, and Scott was the driving instructor that turned up at her door that particular Saturday afternoon. And I met Eddie Marsan in character as Scott. And I opened the door as Poppy, and our first exchange was pretty much the exchange you see in the film.

MOVSHOVITZ: Like all of Mike Leigh's films, "Happy-Go-Lucky" was created through improvisation. Actor Jim Broadbent, who's not in this film, has worked with Leigh since 1980 on two plays and five movies, including "Life is Sweet" and "Topsy-Turvey." He says Leigh starts a project with almost nothing.

Mr. JIM BROADBENT (Actor): The basic approach is to tell you that we're going to be making a film or a play. And he doesn't know what it's going to be and maybe - he did - he's not - he wouldn't be telling you.

For "Life is Sweet," for instance, he asked me to give him a list of 60-80 people who I know and give him a sort of character, thumbnail sketch of all these people and talk about them. And then over several meetings, he will then whittle those people down to one or two. And then, he'll say, right, we're going to build the character on X, and then I start physicalising X a bit it and those that are trying to invent a biography of X. So you're, in a way, you're very much part of the writing team in going up and doing the vast amounts of research. So you have a great deal of responsibility and self interest, obviously, to get a good character going.

MOVSHOVITZ: For Sally Hawkins in "Happy-Go-Lucky," that research involved going to where she imagined Poppy grew up, even though it's never shown in the film.

Ms. HAWKINS: We actually took a day trip to find their house in Watford in North London and then wandering around the town building memories on the town, and this where they would probably do this, and I thought we went to visit their schools.

MOVSHOVITZ: But Hawkins had to do more than create memory for her character, among other things, creating parents we never see. She had to understand how Poppy does what she does.

Ms. HAWKINS: We had to visit certain primary schools and had a go at teaching ourselves and be working with children and investigate the curriculum that we would have to know inside out.

MOVSHOVITZ: Filmmaker Mike Leigh says it's a constructed reality based on reality.

Mr. LEIGH: I want you to believe that these people really exist because it's in the nature of not only how I put the stories together and how it depicts these characters but also how I look at the world and thus how what motivates me in telling these stories, which is drawn from reality and very much comes from a sense of the real world. I mean, I'm actually in the business of making films that are engaged with your emotions and make you love humanity and care about people and also reflect on how desperate it can be for us.

MOVSHOVITZ: There's the old Mike Leigh. For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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