The British actress Sally Hawkins delivers a nervy, utterly captivating tour de force performance in "Happy-Go-Lucky," Mike Leigh's transporting new film. Hawkins plays Poppy, a London schoolteacher with an indomitable spirit and persistently cheerful outlook on life, even when the bowl of cherries winds up being full of pits.
In keeping with Leigh's past films ("Secrets and Lies," "Vera Drake"), "Happy-Go-Lucky" delves deeply into the lives and environments of its characters. Here, Leigh follows Poppy from the flat she shares with her beloved roommate, Zoe (the remarkable Alexis Zegerman), and driving lessons with a cranky conspiracy theorist (a brilliant Eddie Marsan) to a chance encounter with a street tramp and a flamenco class with a fiery teacher (the scene-stealing Karina Fernandez).
Viewers may find themselves holding their collective breath, waiting for the inevitable shoe to drop on Poppy's indefatigable optimism. No spoilers here, except to say that "Happy-Go-Lucky" won't break your heart -- it will make it soar. Leigh and Hawkins have created one of the screen's most indelible and courageous characters in recent memory, a young woman whose seemingly dotty good cheer is actually an extraordinary act of will and self-fulfillment. "Happy-Go-Lucky" is an ode to joy not as mindless bliss but as something of deep moral seriousness.
-- Ann Hornaday (Oct. 17, 2008)