Why do you go to see a particular movie, or a particular series of movies? Is it the actor, or is it the director?
I will often make an effort to familiarize myself with an “auteur’s” body of work. Back in 2011, I worked my way through almost all of John Ford’s films. I watched Eisenstein’s over the Winter. If I could get copies of Robert Aldrich’s entire body of work, I probably wouldn’t leave the house until they all got repeated viewings. I’m planning to start in on Kurosawa sometime over the Spring.
But, like most people, I’ll often go to see a movie because I like a particular actor. I’m not saying anything new, of course, since, in fact, it was the Hollywood studio system that created the audience for “stars.” Nobody went to see John Wayne in Stagecoach because he was John Wayne. But John Ford certainly cast him, and Jimmy Stewart, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence because they were John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.
Mike Leigh is an established British filmmaker with leftist politics and a signature improvisational style. He traditionally begins his projects without a script and works with the actors to develop their characters as the film progresses. Happy-Go-Lucky, his 2008 comedy about a London primary school teacher and her ongoing struggle to learn to drive is a good example of Leigh’s strength and weaknesses.
Happy-Go-Lucky is a defense of the British welfare state against neoliberalism. Leigh doesn’t wear his leftist politics on his shoulder, but it’s clear he thinks that socialism is a good thing. Sally Hawkins, who recently had a major role in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine and minor but vivid appearances in Jane Eyre and Never Let Me Go, plays Pauline Cross, or “Poppy,” a London primary school teacher. The public school system couldn’t have a better spokeswoman than Poppy. She’s not only upbeat. She’s a force of nature. Whether it’s a cranky book store clerk, a mentally disturbed homeless man, or a little boy in one of her classes, a bully she suspects of being abused at home, Poppy will attempt to rescue any person in distress. She’s a veritable superhero of kind-hearted good cheer.
Then she meets her match.
If some of Mike Leigh’s weaknesses as a a filmmaker are on display in Poppy’s interactions with her friends and family — they can get long, weighted down by regional accents, and boring — then his main strength comes into focus when Poppy meets Scott, played by the comedian Eddie Marsan. Happy-Go-Lucky is basically a star turn by Marsan and Sally Hawkins, to brilliant actors who go hilariously toe to toe after Poppy’s bike is stolen, and she decides that, instead of getting another bike, she’ll learn how to drive. Scott, her driving instructor is everything she’s not. An uptight, angry little man with bad teeth, hilariously wrong opinions on everything, and a tendency to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, Scott is a working class version of Basil Fawlty, a caricature of a right-wing British crank. Anybody else would have run away screaming five minutes into the first lesson, but not Poppy. Like any other damaged soul in London, Scott can be redeemed.” One can imagine a UKIP meeting full of nasty little men like Scott. Anybody else would have run away screaming five minutes into the first lesson, but not Poppy. Like any other damaged soul in London, Scott can be redeemed.
And yet he can’t.
Scott hates black people. “They stink,” he growls, referring to a previous driving student. “Lock the door,” he warns Poppy when two black men ride by on bikes. “There’s two of them.” We don’t have to read Poppy’s mind. Her students are mostly black, and her physical therapist, a calm, highly competent professional, is also black. One of Poppy’s best friend’s is black. Happy-Go-Lucky is a celebration of multi-cultural London against fascists like Scott, yet, just to condemn Scott as a fascist, would make Poppy something less than the liberal ideal she is. Scott’s a puritan. He hates Poppy’s boots. “Those boots are inappropriate for driving,” he says. “You should see them on the dance floor,” she responds. Scott’s like an 8-year-old boy who hates girls because he likes them. He clearly hasn’t gotten laid in awhile, and thinks Poppy is leading him on. “Get your hand off the gear shift,” he shouts, imagining, perhaps, she had just reached out for an entirely different gear shift. Scott is an Alex Jones style conspiracy theorist. He knows that the Washington Monument measures 666 feet tall from the top to the foot of the basement. He sees the public school system as a conspiracy by the Illuminati to crush independent souls like his. Even his method of teaching driving is based on the idea that the two side view and rear view mirrors represent a triangle made up of three fallen angels. “En Ra Ha,” he says invoking their names, “En Ra Ha. Stay focused on En Ra Ha.”
“If that’s the eye of Lucifer I don’t think I want to look in there,” she says, barely able to control her laughter.
But Scott’s a lost cause. When Poppy starts dating a handsome social worker who she had called to help her examine the little boy she thinks is being abused at home, Scott loses it. He starts to stalk Poppy. She sees him near her apartment. He runs away when she says hello. On their next driving lesson, he accuses her of trying to seduce him and almost runs the car off the road. She steals his keys and tells him she won’t let him continue to drive in the state he’s in. He chases her around the car until she threatens to call the cops. It’s a stalemate. Poppy’s found the one abused soul she can’t reach. Leave him to UKIP and the BNP.
“Same time next week,” Scott says after he’s calmed down.
“Sorry Scott I can’t,” she says, admitting defeat.
Scott is, perhaps, a better example of Leigh’s actor-centered approach to film than Poppy is. On the page, he reads like a monster, but Eddie Marsan is such a good actor he actually starts to make us see things from his point of view. Perhaps Poppy is “tempting” him. Perhaps “multiculturalism” is ruining England. Perhaps public school system did crush his soul. Marsan conveys not only Scott’s bigotry but his obvious psychological distress. Scott isn’t just a racist. He’s a man in pain, someone who’s deeply unfulfilled because he can’t accept the modern world. Whether it’s Poppy’s cheeky attitude and her boots, or black people with the audacity to ride bicycles through “his” city, Scott, like an American tea bagger, wants his country back. Yet he’s not getting it and, indeed, he never had it. Scott would have been just as unhappy shoveling manure for some great Lord back in the 19th Century as he is living in modern London. Sadly, for him, he can’t see it, and even more sadly, for all of us, politically, his side is winning. Poppy is only a fantasy. In the real world, she’s probably burned out, overworked, and hates her students. But Scott’s the real thing. If you want to know what the guy typing all in capital letters at your local newspaper website looks like in real life, watch Happy-Go-Lucky.