Sally Hawkins stands out at Poppy
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (Mike Leigh). 118 minutes. Opens Friday (October 17). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NN
After the gruelling emotional trials of All Or Nothing and Vera Drake, Mike Leigh lightens up a little, both literally and figuratively.
His new film, Happy-Go-Lucky, immediately establishes itself as a bouncy, upbeat slice of life, following its protagonist, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), as she cycles through some picture-perfect London locations.
If it weren't for the slightly sardonic brass notes on the soundtrack - which sound very much like the mocking horns heard at the beginning of Leigh's dour 1988 dramedy High Hopes - you might think you'd wandered into a Richard Curtis picture.
Leigh's certainly trying to be more appealing this time around. Poppy, we quickly discover, is an almost pathologically cheerful London schoolteacher. She's so unflappably optimistic that her response to having her bike nicked is to sign up for driving lessons.
Poppy is a fascinating character, and Hawkins gives the kind of fully lived-in performance we've come to expect from Leigh's stars. She's like an embryonic version of Brenda Blethyn in Secrets & Lies.
Problem is, Poppy's not the only character who feels like a callback to one of Leigh's earlier films. Her paranoid driving instructor, played with barely throttled rage by Eddie Marsan, is a photocopy of David Thewlis in Naked; an interlude with a clearly disturbed homeless man was first used in Career Girls; and so on.
The cumulative effect is more that of a greatest-hits disc than a cohesive, independent work. Curtis can get away with that, but we've come to expect more from Leigh.