Happiness is an elusive quality in a Mike Leigh film. Sometimes, in his films, you will meet characters who try to cheer other people up, but there is usually a darker side to their perkiness. The photographer who tries to get people to smile in Secrets and Lies is stressed out by conflicts within his family; the woman who provides illegal abortions in Vera Drake naively tells her clients they will all be "right as rain" after she has left, and is caught off-guard when one of them almost dies thanks to her efforts; and when Gilbert & Sullivan premiere their latest musical comedy in Topsy-Turvy, a depressed Gilbert responds to the applause by privately grumbling to his neglected wife, "There's something inherently disappointing about success."
So when you hear that Leigh's newest film is about an irrepressibly upbeat woman who takes life's woes in stride, you can hardly be blamed for wondering what the catch is. Will she have a dark side? Will she have a dark secret? Will her zest for life lead to tragedy? Surely, at some point, some shoe, somewhere, will drop.
But, well, no, that doesn't happen, not quite, though Leigh certainly puts his newest, cheeriest protagonist to the test—starting with one of the very first scenes, in which Poppy (Sally Hawkins), after riding happily through London, parks her bike outside a bookstore and then returns to find that it has been stolen. Does she let this incident get her down? Not in the least; she simply shrugs and sighs that she never got to say goodbye. Later, she says that she could never replace the bike, almost as though it had been a pet, and so she takes driving lessons instead—and her instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), is a bitter, agitated sort of bloke who doesn't ...1