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Mike Leigh and his film “Happy-Go-Lucky” @ the Cornerhouse, Manchester

Last night I joined a sell-out crowd for an early peek at Mike Leigh’s latest film “Happy-Go-Lucky” at the Cornerhouse in Manchester. Not only that, the director himself sauntered into the bar prior to kick-off and in his softly spoken way chatted freely with anyone who wished to say hello. A rumoured appearance by Ken Loach never materialised (though he is in the area shooting his latest film) but we were treated to a surprise guest in the form of one of the cast namely Kate O’Flynn.

“Happy-Go-Lucky” was premiered a few months back at the Berlin Film Festival and was generally accepted to be one of the hits of the fortnight. The light and sweet tone surprised some of the Director’s usual critics and the film gained lots of coverage when the main star Sally Hawkin’s scooped the Silver Bear for Best Actress.
It is the story of a London primary school-teacher Poppy whose character must surely have shot to the top of the charts as one of the most cheerful film inventions ever. Through her eyes we see a modern, busy, angry and occasionally lonely world. Leigh shows Poppy doing her best to cope by spreading a little happiness and the first half of the film has some cracking funny lines, delivered by some well crafted characters.
The film’s tone then shifts somewhat as the pace slows, the audience laughter wears thin and the characters we laughed at start to reveal their many problems. The ever-so-slightly unhinged Driving Instructor was maybe bullied at school and the riotous Spanish Flemenco Teacher is coping with a breakdown.
As often is the case with Leigh’s films there are no answers but he challenges the audience to think about the big topics; life, the world and the methods we employ to deal with it. This film is really a tour de force for the lead actress Sally Hawkins. She almost literally fills every frame with her energy. From starting out as being slightly too nice and therefore annoying, she eventually reels the audience in by revealing Poppy is not what we first thought. We learn to love her and cannot help but hope her quest for a happy life is granted.
After the screening Mike Leigh talked a little on film-making, his actors, the importance of education and the merits of tripe. He finds collaboration inspiring and the making of a film is both a journey and a test, the director’s job being to move things forward “what’s the point if it’s fixed at the start”. His notorious method of working often involves no script to begin with, just a rough idea. Things are then fleshed out over the following months with the actors all contributing to the characters development and mapping things out to the smallest details. Shooting can then begin, the script having evolved and become complete. “Good Film=Good Script”. From pre-production to final edit this film was made in 6 months.
Depressingly, despite being nominated for an Oscar and winning numerous prestigious awards, he still finds gaining finance for his films difficult. Money is tight. He shoots in London as it is cheaper and the Pulp track which features in “Happy-Go-Lucky” was donated for free by Jarvis Cocker himself as he is a huge Mike Leigh fan. The Director mentioned Terence Davies was also in town last night. He is another British film-maker of the highest order who cannot get backing for his work despite”Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes” being hailed as masterpieces. One wonders will new technology and new distribution methods help film-makers create and show their work more easily in the future, as we are seeing with some music nowadays.
The final question from the floor was probably the most interesting. “Did Mike feel like his films have a feminist agenda? Given that the male characters in much of his work (Naked, Secrets and Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky) could be categorized as “men in crisis” he agreed he probably was taking a feminist viewpoint, “that women just tend to get on with things and that he was finally glad to be of service to women in some way!”
Oh yes, and to the tripe. Well it was a running gag throughout the making of the film, talk of this unique Northern delicacy united many of the cast members and encouraged each to talk in their broadest Oop North dialect. Sad news for the tripe-sellers though as Mike Leigh confirmed last night he’s kicked the habit.
For more reviews of the film click here and here. “Happy-Go-Lucky” gets its UK release on 18th April 2008.

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