Tag Archives: Sally Hawkins

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

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.

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Blue Jasmine is the 2008 financial crash re-imagined as A Streetcar Named Desire.

Cate Blanchett, whose performance was briefly overshadowed during the winter by the rape accusations against director Woody Allen, plays Jeanette “Jasmine” Francis. Jasmine, a former member of the 1%, has crashed hard into the 99% after her husband, a sleazy Wolf of Wall Street type scam artist played by Alex Baldwin, commits suicide in prison. Now dependent on her adopted sister Ginger, played by the excellent Sally Hawkins, Jasmine has moved from New York to San Francisco to “start a new life.”

Ginger, to make an understatement, is a saint. Jasmine is a snob who looks down on Ginger’s working-class boyfriend “Chilli,” a Guido stereotype played to perfection by Bobby Cannavale. She had no job skills. She’s an alcoholic and a prescription drug addict who’s progressively losing her mind. She babbles on in front of Ginger’s two sons with the kind of incoherent rage no child that age should be subjected to. Worst of all, Jasmine’s late husband Hal scammed Ginger’s ex-husband Augie, Andrew Dice Clay, out of 200,000 dollars in lottery winnings. Ginger is a stand in for the American working-class, endlessly patient with a ruling class that abuses it over and over again. However many times Augie and Chilli, Blue Jasmine’s two-headed Stanley Kowalski, try to hammer it into her head that her glamorous adopted sister is a hateful fraud, Ginger is still willing to forgive her and take her back.

At least Blue Jasmine can be read this way, as a political allegory about the forgiveness and deferential attitude the gullible American 99% constantly displays towards the American 1%. It’s too bad so many of Woody Allen’s haters decided to boycott Blue Jasmine over the rape accusations Dylan Farrow made last January. Blue Jasmine has plenty of material with which to accuse Allen of misogyny masquerading as feminism. Is Woody Allen really interested in payback against Bernie Madoff, or is the film about something much more personal? Is it really about payback against Mia Farrow?

For Tennessee Williams, a gay man, A Streetcar Named Desire was about compassion for a fading, vulnerable middle-aged woman. But Woody Allen isn’t a gay man who identifies with Jasmine Francis the way Williams identified with Blanche DuBois. Even if Allen isn’t a pedophile who raped his ex-wife’s daughter, he’s still a man who likes very young women, and the 43-year-old Cate Blanchett is a good 2 decades past his expiration date. Is Jasmine the victim of the 1%? Or does she represent the predations of the 1%? If she does, what does it say about Allen that he chooses to personify Wall Street as a fading beauty down on her luck?

Compare Cate Blanchett, for example, to Julie Delpy, another formerly hot Generation X movie goddess now in her 40s. In Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, and in the unjustly neglected film The Countess, Delpy plays a woman obsessed with her fading looks, with her loss of power over men. In Before Midnight, her character Celine directly confronts her husband Jesse, played by Ethan Hawke. If she saw me on that train and I looked like I do today, would you still stop to talk to me? Would you still ask me to get off the train? That Jesse hesitates precipitates a quarrel that threatens to break up their marriage. Celine knows she’s not as attractive as she was in her 20s, and, while not quite as dependent on men as Blanche DuBois or Jasmine, she’s still rankled by the idea that she’s a frumpy soccer mom instead of the goddess she was.

Even though Allen shoots the 5’10” Blanchett as a once beautiful woman now becoming increasingly hard and masculine as downward mobility and time tag team her to separate her from reality, she seems to have lost none of her power over the male sex. Ethan Hawke’s Jesse would almost certainly still stop to talk to her on that train to Vienna. Indeed, Jasmine’s problem is that she has too much male attention. Eddie, Chili’s friend, who’s a good half a foot shorter than she is, tries to get her phone number, even though it’s clear she’s a down on her luck, pill popping alcoholic. Jasmine gets a job as a receptionist in a dental office solely based on her looks. She’s so incompetent at her job that in the real world, she’d cost any dentist half his patients, but her boss keeps her on because, as we later see, he wants to fuck her. She goes to a party and meets a slick Washington diplomat named Dwight Westlake, played by Peter Sarsgaard, who’s so smitten with her that he proposes marriage before he bothers to figure out that she’s the ex-wife of the film’s Bernie Madoff, a move that would have surely cost him his political career had Augie not exposed her before it was too late.

Yes, Cate Blanchett still looks pretty good in Blue Jasmine, but I doubt even the Cate Blanchett of Lord of the Rings could pull off what she does here. She’s a sorceress who has a magical ring that immediately gets men to think with the wrong head. While, admittedly, getting a man to think with the wrong head has never been particularly difficult, we have to understand, once again, that Blue Jasmine was written and directed by a borderline pedophile. So what is it that lets the 40-something Jasmine sweep men off their feet so easily? Perhaps Blue Jasmine is a political critique after all. Jasmine sweeps men off their feet because they, like the 99% as a whole, respect the 1%. Jasmine has class. She’s tall, blond, elegant. She carries Gucci, or was it Louis Vuitton bags. She used to live on Park Avenue, something that impresses the rubes out in the Guido ridden (in Woody Allen’s imagination anyway) hinterlands of San Francisco and Marin. She’s enough of a bull-shit artist to make people like Dwight buy into her own illusions about herself.

Is Blue Jasmine a feminist movie? Or is it a misogynist one? Perhaps it’s a a bit of both. Woody Allen, is clearly a snob like Jasmine. He’s as horrified about her having had to move to a shitty working-class neighborhood in San Francisco as she is. That he’s clueless about how expensive that crappy little apartment on Van Ness would be now is beside the point. For Woody Allen, Jasmine’s downward mobility exposes her to sexual harassment, and, in one horrifying scene, attempted rape by her employer. Jasmine is a woman who’s gotten over on her looks for so long she dropped out of college and forgot to pick up any real job skills. She barely knows how to use a computer. She’s been reduced to grabbing unwilling strangers and inflicting on them her tale of woe. As Blue Jasmine closes, we see her on a park bench, babbling to herself, well on her way to becoming a bag lady. This once beautiful woman has nothing more to look forward to but homelessness, mental illness, and probably sexual assault much worse than the one depicted in the film.

Jasmine is the ultimate victim of the 1%, someone who’s been so brainwashed by the ideology of the ruling class she won’t survive.