Thursday, 8 May 2008

Film Review: Happy-go-Lucky

A little while ago I posted on this film, making up most of my post with a quotation from a review on the Jesuit's Thinking Faith site. Following up the dialogue in the comments on that post, we went to see the film this evening. As we were the only two in the cinema to see it, this became almost a private screening (but it did mean we could pass comments to each other as we were watching).

The film turned out to have rather more substance to it than the reviews (including the Thinking Faith review) suggested. The "workshop" manner of its production is apparent in some of the scenes, which leave you wondering a bit what their "point" was or how they "fitted in" with the film as a whole. One example of this is the scene in the bookshop early in the film, where Poppy tries to engage a rather less than communicative shop assistant in conversation. For most people seeing the film, the dialogue probably comes across as quite funny. For me, it didn't communicate as particularly funny; rather it just came over as rather odd. In the context of the film, this could be seen as "Poppy's character"; in the context of the production of the film, one can see it more as the outcome of a "workshop" way of making a film. What the dialogue does do, though, and this is true of other points in the film as well, is to point the audience towards a question about the situation that has been encountered. What is the shop assistant really about? Does he, should he, can he communicate or relate in any way to Poppy as she has come into his shop? And, if the answer is "no, he can't communicate or relate", is that how things should be? Perhaps one can also ask: despite her apparent efforts at communicating with the uncomprehending shop assistant, has Poppy really been able to relate to him?

Another feature of the film is some very nice turns of phrase. So, as Poppy leaves the bookshop and finds that her bicycle has been stolen, she observes that she didn't even have the chance to say goodbye. Similar sharp turns of phrase occur throughout the film, and it is easy to miss them or undervalue them.

Perhaps these two scenes at the beginning of the film open up what is the subject of the film, in my view at least. And that is ... a reflection on happiness in 1990's London. In each of its episodes - and it is a succession of episodes, rather than a continuous plot - it places this question about happiness in a different situation. Four girls on a night out clubbing, and a Saturday morning still drunk back at home. A pupil involved in bullying at school, and the single parent/new boyfriend at home. Poppy taking up with the social worker who visits this pupil in school. Two teacher flat-mates who prefer to rent - they just don't want the hassle of a mortgage - and the contrast between them and younger sister who is married, expecting a baby and has a nice house with a garden at the seaside (and who then tries to tell Poppy that she should take life more seriously).

There are some points of explicit social comment. One example is a pub conversation about pupils who had just stayed in at home during a sunny weekend. The possible explanations come back thick and fast - single parents just too tired making ends meet to be able to take children out, no parks nearby, etc. The concluding dialogue includes an observation "that you can't make everyone happy" with the response "but there's no harm in trying". It also includes a comment by Zoe "I think I should try to give up smoking"

The encounter with the tramp - rather creepy as it is, and a bit "unsituated" in the flow of the film - can be seen, I think, in two ways. It can be seen as raising the question about poverty in present day society; or, and I think this is the better understanding, it asks the question about what constitutes happiness in that situation. Is the tramp really the most unhappy person in the encounter, or is it Poppy?

The driving instructor just appeared to me as a caricature, yes, of racial prejudice and of a certain self-centred neurosis. Poppy's attempts to psychoanalyse the instructors situation (was he bullied at school?) struck me as being equally caricature. Perhaps the character of the instructor and his scenes show evidence of the workshop manner of the film production.

The character of the Flamenco instructor is also interesting. Her explanation of Flamenco as a dance form originating in the wish of a people to have their own self-expression and a statement of their "space" in society - this was well expressed both in the dialogue and the assertive stamping of feet of the dance.

A couple of interesting things about the shooting of the film. The willingness to show street names gives the episodes of the film an embedding in a local situation, a "belonging". The school buildings shown, the skylines of London and a recognisable approach to the road systems around the Docklands area have a similar effect. In a number of the scenes, people's faces are filmed in a closer than usual close up. The full face can be seen as they talk, but the top of the head/hair is above the top of the screen and the shoulders are below the bottom of the screen. This has been particularly used in some shots of Poppy. It gives a sense of entering in to the thoughts of the person speaking, of the presenting of the words of their dialogue as a question being posed to the audience.

So, at the end of the film, is there an answer to what constitutes happiness in today's world? No. Instead, the audience have encountered a series of episodes raising the question of happiness. It would be very easy to see Poppy as a kind of heroine figure trying to spread happiness where ever she goes. But I think I agree with the Thinking Faith review in suggesting that, at the bottom line, she does not have anything of depth to offer, not even in her relationship with the social worker. The film does seem to just "stop" rather than come to an expected end - and you are left without any sense that happiness is better understood after watching the film than it was before seeing it.

But, sorry to strike a realist note, Poppy and Zoe simply would not survive in a primary classroom today. They were never shown doing a fraction of a fraction of the planning that primary teachers have to do and record nowadays!


Anonymous said...

zero degrees says you must have been taking notes!or perhaps you wrote it while it was fresh in your mind. A cup of tea, a quick glance of the paper and my eyes shut after seeing that film! What has happened to all the Catholic commentary commentaries lately- are they on hols?

Joe said...

Yes, the commentaries have been a bit on hols - its called "too much work to do" - or "stress". I will try to make up for it tomorrow ...

There were a couple of other things I was going to add about the film: (1) Teaching is a kind of paradigm threading through the film - not only are Zoe and Poppy teachers, but there is also a driving instructor and a flamenco dance instructor. Are the possibilities of teaching as a means of promoting happiness being explored here - eg when the head teacher describes the flamenco teacher as being a very good teacher in the pub afterwards) (2) In the London sky lines and other context scenes, what were the iconic images? The "gherkin" and other London office towers, the primary school building was a typical refurbished building, Camden market etc. Was there any sight of a Church? (probably was, but I can't remember it, and I suppose St Paul's is implied in London sky lines). But was a secularised, urban society being represented by these backgrounds?

Anonymous said...

Was Mike Leigh a former teacher perhaps? Poppy said she was happy, i don't think the driving instructor or dance teacher were (they both had problems) No, i didn't spot Our Lady of Hal either! although i doubt if that was intentional. Faith just wasn't part of their lives.Mentioning Faith makes me think of Confession and then dentistry-what about you?