The Significance of Disposition
Geoffrey Macnab talks negatively of the sentimental love scene in Happy -Go- Lucky, and Dave Calhoun, commenting in the same magazine, Sight and Sound, says that generally people believe this apparently optimistic film is a departure for Mike Leigh. There is this idea in Macnab's comment that Leigh should leave such happy sex scenes alone, and in Calhoun's observations on the critical response to Happy-Go-Lucky that Leigh is generally a filmmaker of despair. Leigh, however, sees this assumption of pessimism as nonsense, saying comments like "extraordinary from this miserabilist" are "so ludicrous that I'm beyond being cross about it."(Sight and Sound) So if Leigh thinks nothing of filming a love scene 'sentimentally' between his leading character, primary school teacher, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), and a social worker whom she has recently met at school, and believes people misread his work by labelling it miserabilist, then what is it that makes viewers and critics see pessimism in his work despite Leigh's protestations? And is it because of this perceived general pessimism that Macnab insists on seeing the love-making scene as sentimental?
Certainly it is easy to see why critics would assume Leigh's work is despairing. Think ofBleak Moments and Naked, for example, or even High Hopes and Vera Drake: all films indicative of miserabilist mise-en-scene, no more in evidence than in Naked where Leigh's art designer deliberately removed a red car from one scene because it lent it too much colour. But there have also been lighter works, summery films like Life is Sweet, even Secrets and Lies, and now Happy-Go-Lucky. What seems to interest Leigh generally isn't pessimism so much as two things: the social disposition of England, and the personal disposition of his characters. There are usually hints of class division, but there are even more clearly signs of division in personal disposition, and often the clash between the two. Whether that is Naked's central character Johnny (David Thewlis) trying to destroy the optimism of the security guard in Naked, Hortense's positive outlook contrasted with her half-sister's inertia in Secrets and Lies, or the functional sister's very different perspective on life from her dysfunctional bulimic sibling in Life is Sweet, Leigh wants to point up the contrast between the optimistic and the despairing.
But if this were simply a case of one's perspective on the world, Leigh's work would be useful but not especially textured. What gives it social breadth is how this plays out within the context of a class-conscious society, where optimism and pessimism can suggest sometimes an escape from societal expectation; sometimes false consciousness in relation to the society that one's functioning within. The question isn't only about having a happy as opposed to unhappy disposition, but how that perspective on life impacts on the world. Now Leigh says in Sight and Sound that "the point about the teachers of this world, the Poppies, is that everywhere there are poppies being positive and patient and caring and loving and teaching kids" and adds, "we're in a terminal world, right, and there is every reason to be deeply pessimistic. But people are out there on the ground getting on with it". Yet we shouldn't take this as a blanket need for optmistic do-gooders. It is more about people who can see the world a bit more clearly, whether positively or negatively, than others. In Life is Sweet, Claire Skinner plays the optimistic sister who looks to travel, while Jane Horrocks is the despairing bulimic who won't even leave her bedroom. Leigh's sympathies are loosely with Skinner over Horrocks not because Skinner's optimistic, but that she seems to see the world more clearly than Horrocks. By the same reckoning, in Happy-Go-Lucky, we can contrast Poppy's perpetual chirpiness with her driving instructor's almost fundamental jaundice. The film's siding with Poppy over Scott again resides in lucidity over despair, but only because Poppy sees the world through a broad prism, while Scott views it through a narrow focus of religious bigotry and what seems like a miserable childhood he has never got over. Optimism is only as good as the vista it provides.
This obviously runs through much of his work, and if he is so dismissive of critics who see him as a miserabilist, it may be due to the failure to see the problematic being worked out underneath the apparent despair. If he were simply a miserabilist would he not also give the impression of perhaps a political fatalism, of saying the world is an inevitably bleak place so why attempt to suggest otherwise? Yet in numerous interviews Leigh hardly denies the political even if he is careful to show that his films are not merely an illustration of politics. When asked if his fimmaking is political he says "It is and it isn't." "...obviously when you look at something like Four Days in July or Meantime, which is partly a film about unemployment, or High Hopes, which refers very specifically to Margaret Thatcher, there are aspects of those - certain class things - that are pretty clearly English." (British Cinema Book) He also admits that High Hopes "is a film, that celebrates socialism." (Eyes on the World) Leigh's work seems interested in the centrality of social class in Britain - and especially the south of England where almost all his films are set - and moments of release from these structures.
One of the most useful ways of exploring this class containment and at the same time its transcendence is to look at Leigh's use of conversational clich and the warmth, tenderness and immediate expressiveness that goes beyond these idiomatic expressions. Almost all of Leigh's characters speak in clichs, and if they don't - like Johnny in Naked, Katrin Cartlidge's character in Career Girls - much of the expressiveness goes into undermining the idioms other characters use unthinkingly. When Johnny goes round to a flat Gina McKee's character is looking after, he constantly goads her as she uses language as a conventional attempt at communication; Johnny wants from it a radical sense of disclosure.
But Leigh seems fascinated in not so much how characters undermine clich through cleverness of language, but more through acuteness of feeling. Johnny is at his most expressive finally not when he's punning and playing with words, but near the conclusion when he is lying on the floor receiving a beating from the film's yuppie landlord. As we witness the rawness of a nervous system that has obviously suffered severe beatings in the distant past, so Johnny's fears, insecurities and emotional chaos come to the surface. If clichs obviously can't speak for the characters; neither really can one's self-consciousness towards them. The characters' dispositions go much deeper than language; so though Leigh is a 'talky' director, it isn't in the talk that we are likely to find the film's purposefulness. His films are talky as if to show language's limitations.
But where does Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky fit it into this? Let us think back briefly to an earlier role Sally Hawkins played in a Mike Leigh film, All or Nothing, where she was the young woman on the housing estate with the shot nervous system. Like a number of other Leigh characters including David Thewlis in Naked, Katrin Cartlidge in the same film, and maybe Horrocks in Life is Sweet, she has, in All or Nothing, a basically uncontained nervous system. It is a negatively nervous disposition, as she drinks, takes drugs and screws her way towards oblivion. Macnab may believe that the love scene in Happy-Go-Lucky is sentimental, but it is surely more useful to think of it as positively disposed, coming from nervous systems where both parties possess affirmative nervous dispositions. This isn't so much sentimentality as the deliberate flipside of the negatively nervously disposed. So often in his work Leigh's character can't get round to touching each other because their aloofness is stronger than their desire (evident in Bleak Moments), or if they do get round to doing so the touching is forceful, even sadistic or sado-masochistic - as in sex scenes in Life is Sweet, Naked or All or Nothing.
Thus if we want to defend Leigh's 'sentimental' sex scene we can suggest he's broadening the range of his extra-linguistic features, broadening the possibilities in capturing non-verbal communication, well aware that within the class-constrained culture he is examining - where George Bernard Shaw once said every time an Englishman opens his mouth another Englishman hates him - it is not language that captures the core of one's disposition, but the features beyond language.
It is this idea of what is beyond language that may also explain the caricatural aspect of Leigh' work - and this is an element that contains something of the paradoxical. Leigh is famous for the way he doesn't create characters from his own imagination, but out of long rehearsal periods where the character develops from the interaction between Leigh and his actors. As Judy Stone says in Eyes on the World, "the story comes out of the characters he creates together with his actors in a three month rehearsal period." Yet this doesn't arrive at the sort of realist aesthetic we find in Ken Loach's work, but closer to the over-determination of a sketch artist who plays up idiosyncratic features that the artist notices, over the loosely objective approach that makes all features of equal significance. But this paradox is ironed out when Leigh explains his method in more detail. The important thing is the "poetry of character. We use a real person as a jumping off-point. I always get the actors to talk about different people they have known." He adds, "then, the character develops and expands. My job is to push and pull it and cajole it and bully it in the direction of what's dramatic and cinematic." (Eyes of the World)
In such an approach the character becomes very much what Leigh wants it to become, and we might wonder if much of this cajoling and bullying lies in pushing through the Leigh preoccupations of the limitations of language, the presence of positive and negative dispositions, and how these positive and negative aspects can be revealed through the body. A good place to look at the negative disposition and limitations of language is of course Eddie Marsan's character (Scott) in Happy-Go- Lucky. Here he is a driving instructor whose whole existence is an emotional fortress: he is pedantic, suspicious, frigid and bigoted, and believes the only way one can learn how to drive is by the most mechanical of approaches. But what he says and what he does are so far apart that he can with all sincerity lie as he doesn't even feel he is not telling the truth. For example one evening Poppy, her sister and Poppy's flatmate arrive back after visiting Poppy's sister in the north, and she notices Scott loitering on the street corner across from the flat. At the next lesson when she confronts him about this he swears he was at his mother's at the time, that he couldn't possibly have been outside her house. It is almost what we could call an "immature lie", as if in contrast to what is often the mature, white lie. If the white lie is frequently deployed in society to protect someone's feelings, to get out of a social arrangement, then the immature lie is the sort of fib we often get from children who somehow believe that the insistence of the lie can dissolve the factuality of the event. Scott's claim that he wasn't at the street corner though Poppy possesses two witnesses and notices that Scott actively runs away when he sees Poppy noticing him, is the lie as a form of denial. If the white lie is often offered out of the clear comprehension of social demands and expectations; the immature lie suggest the opposite - and tells us just how out of touch with the world Scott happens to be.
Yet this being out of touch also connects to language, as if Scott doesn't quite believe that what he says and what he does is quite the same thing. Maybe the difference generally between a child's immature lie and the adult's white lie is the degree to which the child doesn't take the language seriously where the adult doesn't take the situation seriously. That when the child lies he does so believing that the event has obviously taken place but that the language he uses to pretend it hasn't is meaningless. Its purpose is to get out of a difficult situation, finally, and that he hopes the protestations will not so much convince (there is rarely a developed argument) more force the other person to give up enquiring. In the adult white lie the situation often hasn't taken place and the language is all that we take seriously. This is often true when someone says they can't make a social arrangement because of work commitments (though there may be none), or through not feeling very well (though the person is in good health). Central to Scott's immaturity is the way that the situation unequivocally takes place and is clearly witnessed, and yet where he responds as if it had never happened.
Saying a little about Marsan's immaturity helps us to locate the maturity in Poppy. Leigh may saddle her with a name that sounds more like a parent's term of affection, she may teach primary school children as if she were a child herself, and may by her sister's harshly predictable standards have a life without enough direction and security, but Leigh is careful to make clear this has nothing to do with the immature. Maturity here is the evolution of a positive disposition. This doesn't mean that one ignores the problems of the world; more that the problems are seen for what they are and dealt with accordingly. When Poppy loses her bike at the beginning of the film this isn't an opportunity to rail against the world, but instead a chance to take some driving lessons. As she laughs it off saying she never even had the chance to say goodbye to her bike, she never gives the problem any more thought than she thinks it deserves. Leigh might even be willing to sacrifice a certain verisimilitude in the sense David Mamet gives the term when he says, "never give the audience something they have a reason to disbelieve." (On Directing Film)As Poppy's parked her bike on a busy street and next to other bikes, and as the bike looks like a very basic woman's bike, why it would be stolen over the others is a point Leigh cares not address and that an audience might ponder over. But this is almost at the same time a Leigh tease: as if to ponder over the theft and who might be responsible for it is to miss the point while Poppy astutely sees that the bike theft is of little importance except as a catalyst for motivating her to make a minor change in her life.
It is this type of problem - the problem of the repercussions of an action ignored - that Macnab zeroes in on in his Sight and Sound review of the film. At one stage Sally watches as a usually pleasant boy is bullying others at school, and a social worker comes in to deal with the problem. He extracts the information that makes it clear the boy's being physically abused by her mum's new boyfriend. But afterwards Leigh ignores the boy's problems and concentrates on the burgeoning relationship between Poppy and the social worker. Macnab muses over "the nagging suspicion that Leigh is less interested in the kid's problems than in using him to advance the plot and bring Poppy together with a potential boyfriend." Macnab adds "there are one or two other moments when Poppy's relentless optimism seems incongruous given the unhappy people she encounters and the grim events she witnesses." Maybe it is fairer to say though that Poppy can absorb unhappiness but is unwillinging to allow it to infect her own happiness, and acts according to her capacity for compassion, but cannot or will not do anything more. If we too readily see beyond the problem and insist Poppy should be responding more than she does, are we asking for more misery in Poppy's life than she can contain if she wants to hold on to her breezy outlook?
And yet Poppy's approach isn't quite the same as denial, a trait we find in numerous female Leigh characters, including Alison Steadman's Beverly in Abigail's Party, Barbara in Meantime and Martin's wife in High Hopes: all of whom try to keep a social situation together long after it has clearly fallen apart. In Happy-Go-Lucky the problem Leigh seems to set himself is how to create a happy character without denial, how to create a cheerful disposition without then showing how the weight of the world collapses in on her, or showing how she avoids doing so by not confronting the reality around her. If a number of other Leigh characters confront the world either too clearly (as to some degree Phil Daniels' character in Meantime does, and also Johnny in Naked, whose apocalyptic rants are consistent with Leigh's claims above about the world in terminal decline) or others with false optimism that is bound to collapse (most especially Barbara in Meantime), then Poppy is someone whose optimism can contain the pessimistic but not to the detriment of self-preservation.
For example the very criticism Macnab levels at Leigh in relation to the plot contrivance, of getting Poppy and her beau together through the young boy's bullying behaviour, and then ignoring what could have developed into a sub-plot concerning the boy, needn't be seen as plot laziness, but central to how Poppy perceives the world and her purpose in it. Isn't it consistent with her approach to other characters, and Leigh's statement in Sight and Sound that what makes the film "unique is that, apart from two tiny scenes, there's no parallel action"? Leigh concentrates on Poppy's disposition, so that there are a number of scenes which would seem to be leading somewhere that don't really go anywhere at all. We can think of the moment where Poppy comes across a homeless person one evening, briefly strikes up a conversation, and even allows the man the briefest glimpse of tenderness towards her before making clear her boundaries. The homeless man then walks off, never to return to the film again. It's as if Leigh is saying Poppy has the sensitivity to create space in her life for people who have no impact on her destiny, but knows at the same time exactly how much space she can give them.
This is of course at the heart of the central dynamic relationship in the film, and also the central emotional relationship in the film. The dynamic situation is with Scott, and as Leigh explores the contours of this curious and burgeoning bond, where two people with such different dispositions share the same small space by virtue of the driving lessons, Leigh shows Scott's growing attachment and Poppy's complicity in that development without remotely being responsible for it. But how we might ask can someone be complicit and yet not responsible? The simplest answer would be by saying Poppy is being herself: she is more or less the same with Scott as she is with everyone. The problem is nobody else has clearly been like that with him. Her exuberance, her enthusiasm, her interest in Scott as a person, seems so surprising that what can he do but fall in love. He may later rail against her saying that she teased him with her manner and her clothing, but that is generally her manner and usually her clothing. She's complicit in the sense that she tries to engage with every human being she comes into contact with (so completely evident in that early scene in the bookshop where she tries to engage the dour bookshop worker in some idle cheer and chat), but the responsibility lies less with her than in the fact society has so few people with so positive a disposition, and so many people with the opposite - and few more so than Scott.
Yet maybe hovering over the film for all the optimism, chiefly manifest through Poppy's wonderful outlook on life, is a potential pessimism. For Leigh nevertheless still offers a work shot through with loneliness, failed communication and resentment. We've already mentioned the homeless figure whom Poppy so briefly and yet so tenderly befriends, and also Scott, who for her own well-being she will avoid after he completely loses his temper during a driving lesson. Leigh shows us other characters very much unlike Poppy, as well, people who simply don't express themselves, or whose expressivity is rarely given a chance to show itself. If we think about her best friend and flatmate for ten years, Zoe, we can maybe understand this hovering loneliness, and the film's central emotional relationship. At the beginning of the film both girls are single; at the end Zoe's still alone, and we might wonder how she will adjust to this life with her friend no longer so readily around to share it. As Leigh sets up Poppy and new man Tim as a couple with a future, we may wonder where Zoe will fit in - this friend who has not only lived with Poppy for ten years, but also drives Poppy to her sister's in the north of England perhaps because Poppy herself doesn't drive; perhaps just as readily because they are so close that Poppy expects them to go everywhere together.
Interestingly Leigh closes the film not on a romantic scene between Poppy and her new man, but on a reflective scene between Poppy and Zoe. As they row around Hyde Park, this is the sort of scene that could have been filmed more or less identically with Tim instead of Zoe and would have been consistent with the expectations of a romantic comedy. But by having the scene between Poppy and Zoe, Leigh manages to get the right balance between optimistic possibilities and reflective realities: Poppy has found a man and Zoe will surely lose at least something in her friendship with Poppy. Thus though this is in many ways Leigh's most optimistic film, it's chiefly because Poppy is his most optimistic character. But an optimistic character doesn't always make for a film of optimism, and Leigh's achievement here is to show a character's optimistic disposition as entirely justified, without remotely suggesting that this disposition can be universally applicable. If so often in Mike Leigh's work we see pockets of optimism against the onslaught of a characterisational and visual pessimism (think of the architectural bleakness of Meantimeand Naked), then here it is the other way round. But there are also more than a few pockets of unhappiness, much dissatisfaction and vague feelings of imminent loneliness that Leigh is too resolutely and pragmatically realist to deny for the conventions of a happy ending. If Macnab claims Leigh's love scene is sentimental, then Leigh makes sure that any sentimentality is countered by an ending that has two characters rowing in a boat with very different futures ahead of them, rather than the same one we might have expected for Tim and Poppy had the scene focused on what would have been a sentimental scene of love.
© Tony McKibbin