A character study of a person of no discernable character, Mike Leigh’s “Happy Go Lucky”* is pure torture from start to… well, about two thirds through, the point where I was mercifully delivered into the arms of Morpheus. Strangely, I wasn’t that tired when I started watching it. Was it some spontaneous narcoleptic episode brought about by sheer desire to flee the awfulness of it all? Should the CIA be looking for more effective forms of torture lite than James Blunt on heavy rotation, they might do well to consider an endless loop of “Happy Go Lucky”, whose central character Polly is a woman so pathologically incapable of shutting her fatuous trap for two fucking seconds she would have even the most fervent Jihadi spilling the beans on chemical weapons caches within twenty minutes of exposure to her. “Happy Go Lucky” reinforces once again the sober truth that in any sane world the adjectives “chirpy”, “bubbly” and “positive” are all epithets.
“Happy Go Lucky” is a timely reminder of just how galling and depressing the “happy” are, at least in Leigh’s typically reductive and caricatured version of what constitutes happiness: the sunny disposition. Happiness is constitutional, we’re in some pre-psychological universe of types and temperaments with Leigh. There’s nothing wrong with this per se but the conflict between his abilities and aspirations is precisely why, for all the realist tics and nuances his actors elaborate, his world remains resolutely flat and unrecognisable, presenting precisely the barriers to empathy and identification of the more mainstream fare that he imagines his work offers an alternative to. No less so than in Richard Curtis’ horrific, soul-curdling Blairite tryptich “Four Weddings”, “Notting Hill” and “Love Actually” do I find myself wondering “who the fuck are these people?” Hang on, they’re the working class?
Leigh’s reputation as a great essayer of working class life is as mysterious as Almodovar’s repute as a great creator of female roles. At least Almodovar has other strengths, whereas in his attitudes toward women Leigh’s overlap with that other arch middlebrow sentimentalist Nick Hornby is pronounced. For both, men are tortured by invariably ludicrous and self-deceptive “Ideas”, while women are stoical and conservative, making do and getting by. Nabokov’s description of his mother, “ to love with all her heart and leave the rest to chance was the best wisdom she knew,” has the character of an axiom in Leigh’s world. Men are idealistic and therefore conflicted, women are emotional and therefore wise. Leigh’s “women” and “men” overlap with Shaw’s distinction between the reasonable and unreasonable man. “ The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.” Leigh’s women are Shavian “reasonable men”. What Leigh misses out on is the next line. “Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
The typical Leigh split is represented in “Happy Go Lucky” by Poppy and her coterie of infantilised, primary-colour clad female idiots, who in their miserably debased notions of “creativity” come on as halfwit Brit cousins to Chytilová’s “Daisies”. The “gang” are introduced in an opening Saturday-night-out sequence suffused with truly hypertension inducing “girlyness” (which here signifies timidly flirting with lesbianism and working oneself up into a state of pubescent semi-hysteria.) Their opposite is her driving instructor, a paranoid, conspiracy theory spouting, angry racist, a weak version of David Thewlis’ Johnny, who was himself simply a more fully realised version of most of the male characters that preceded him. It’s an irony that “Happy Go Lucky” comes out in the same week that “Naked” is finally issued on DVD. It may be true that after “Naked” Thewlis had nowhere else to go, but neither did Leigh (admission: I haven’t seen “Topsy-Turvy”.) “All or Nothing”? Two hours of heavy-jowled lugubriosity as Timothy Spall stares off camera battling quietly with dissatisfaction and his wife tries to reconcile him to the elemental truth, expressed in “High Hopes” with regard to the central male character’s refusal to have a child while socialism has still yet to be realized, that there never was and will be a perfect world, daahhhhling. “Vera Drake”? Two hours of Imelda Staunton shuffling around in her pinny, boiled-cabbage complexion to the fore as a working class Holy-Innocent back street abortionist, who, acting spontaneously from her great naïve wellspring of proletarian female love without the slightest grasp of the social implications of her acts eventually gets gratifyingly sent down for ten years’ hard labour. That’ll learn you. Do a Sociology O-level or something while you’re banged up, for fuck’s sake!
What Poppy possesses (intrinsically. Well, she IS a bird, innit?) and what we’re supposed to be seduced by, is that great bit of Late Capitalist/ New Age hucksterism, “Empathy” (see also “emotional intelligence” or its middlebrow literary correlate, “Only Connect!”) “Empathy” here stands in for solidarity, the empathetic gaze appraises its object as emotional rather than political/social, thereby divesting both sides of agency. Poppy is so superhumanly empathetic that not only does she have no fear of seeking out violently deranged tramps hunkered down in bits of wasteland ( “is this the bit where she gets raped and murdered?” a small gleeful voice kept asking in the back of my mind as I watched) she can even “relate” to someone incapable of uttering more than repeated monosyllables.
“SHE SHE SHE SHE SHE SHE SHE SHE,” the Tramp splutters.
“Does she?” Polly asks, preternaturally capable of connecting with the tramps pain and healing him, before he wanders off to continue his life of neglect and abandonment. Best not to wonder why the poor fucker’s out there on his own. You think about stuff too much and you get yourself confused, just learn how to feel! More importantly, don’t judge, critical scrutiny is to be avoided, we’re all good people deep down we just need a bit of love to bring it out. There is no concrete or conscious exploitation, people are bad because they haven't been loved enough, a sprinkling of multicoloured magic dust on our grumpy old lives will make it all ok, doing the best we can to make each day fun and happy within our own narrow social world. In this respect “Happy Go Lucky” resembles the genuinely hateful “Amelie” and its Po-mo micro-(non)politics of whimsy. Kitchen sink magic-realism in which everything is made right by a cup of tea and a good old heart-to-heart. The interpersonal and the empathic are the keys to making life more bearable, certainly not the collective and the intellectual. Well we wouldn’t want to do without any of them, but why can’t we have it all? Why must one banish the other?
Even more deeply aggravating than Brenda Blethyn’s interminable, shaky-fag-handed, Spaniel-eyed bawling and shrieking of “Sweetheart, no, sweetheart!” in “Secrets and Lies”, Poppy’s indefatigable chirpiness is a sure sign of a mind radically out of kilter with any reasonable take on things. Poppy never stops finding things funny. She has a bad back, can hardly walk: every twinge of pain sends her off on another bout of giggling and pop-cultural glossolalia. For a moment you’re tempted to think that it might in fact be a study of the last (wo)manish horror of Late Capital, its awful diminution of human capacity. That the film is meant to be a study of the neurotic’s unbearable compulsion to deflect any questions that touch on their condition into an endless, gapless monologue, a self-blinding that occasionally elevates itself to a form of deeply ambiguous ecstatic transport (something “Heavenly Creatures” captured so brilliantly) But that’s too generous to Leigh. There’s no sly, critical legerdemain. Basically, we’re supposed to think Poppy has got it right.
At risk of repeating myself, people like Mike Leigh and Martin Amis, are, at heart, truly horrible little men, (this is their strength), terminal, cancerous misanthropes whose anxiety in the face of their own potentially coruscating negativity means they end up producing lukewarm “humanist” gruel like “London Fields” or “Vera Drake”. Or this. Play to your strengths lads! To quote Monty in “Withnail and I” “ Go with it, it’s like a tide….. it’s society’s crime not ours!”
And re the obvious objection, “so we’re not allowed to be happy until after the revolution are we?” let me assure you brothers and sisters, yes, of course we’re allowed to be happy!
Just not like this.
*On being presented with the DVD on my return from Blockbuster Mrs Impostume stared in puzzlement at the cover for a few moments (see above) before asking, “ why have you brought me this film about a woman with an idiotic face?”
Update! Some gobby bird starts giving it all that over on her blog. She could do with a couple of kiddies that one, keep her out of trouble. I'd knock her up myself if the missus wasn't always standing over me with the rolling pin. Right. I'm off down the boozer.
Gotta laugh, innit?