Sally Hawkins is the aptly named Poppy, an irrepressibly cheerful, working class 30 year-old single woman who lives in a flat with her best mate and doesn’t take anything remotely seriously, innit. Poppy, a primary school teacher, has decided to learn how to drive, after her bicycle is stolen, innit. Her instructor is Scott (Eddie Marsan, brilliant) a no-nonsense, taciturn grump who is about to experience his own personal hell with a woman who has no notion of personal space/privacy, never stops giggling and teasing him, and has a serious inability to focus on the task at hand about 99% of the time. Their sessions can’t end soon enough for Scott, innit. Meanwhile, we see Poppy at work dealing with a troubled student, having flamenco lessons with an hilariously passionate teacher (Karina Fernandez), and having a strange encounter with an unpredictable homeless man that shows for all her irritating qualities, Poppy really does care. Innit.
I’ve put off watching this 2008 Mike Leigh (“Secrets and Lies”, “Vera Drake”) film for years because of my complete intolerance for Sally Hawkins. This was the film that really broke her, and from the trailers it looked like a truly excruciating experience. The fact that I found “Secrets and Lies” insufferable didn’t help (Brenda Blethyn does for me what Hawkins does, pretty much). Perhaps several years of having to put up with Ms. Hawkins (who was fine in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”) has softened the blow somewhat, but this turned out not to be quite as excruciating as I had been expecting (Apparently the original cut was over 2 ½ hours, so thank heavens it was shorn down a bit!).
Having said that, Hawkins (who gets quite the showcase here for her caricatured cockney schtick, innit) and the character of Poppy are still very hard to take, and I get the feeling that Mr. Leigh thought far more highly of Poppy than I did. Moreso than Hawkins’ actual portrayal of the character, I actually detested Poppy throughout. Neither she nor writer-director Leigh seem to understand that there is something very, very wrong with Poppy, who seems to break out into a case of the giggles on every occasion, warranted or not. That’s incredibly annoying after about five minutes. With two hours to go. Good-hearted and positive to the end as she certainly is, Poppy simply has absolutely no self-awareness whatsoever, and thrusts her perennial good cheer onto others where it may or may not be proper or even remotely helpful. She’s also got an extreme case of ADHD, and for someone apparently wanting to learn to drive, these two major character malfunctions had me completely onside with Eddie Marsan’s gruff, explosive driving instructor throughout. Given the way the film ultimately pans out, I don’t think this was the desired response. In fact, Scott becomes quite unlikeable and unstable towards the end…and I still think he was in the right for the most part (He’s a wee bit racist, so I can’t say I was entirely on board with the guy).
I have no problem with the film’s message of positivity. It’s good to keep on smiling and having a laugh when you can. That’s a good thing a lot of the time, so long as you’re not a giggling twit about it. What I have a serious problem with is Poppy forcing her attitude of positivity on other people at all times. Look, Poppy, you self-absorbed, bubble-brained twat: Sometimes life is a vicious, sick and twisted sonofabitch, and laughing about it doesn’t always help. It may work for you, but it’s no good forcing other people to see things the way you do, especially when you don’t know just how shit their day was or what their circumstances are. Poppy’s refusal to see this and mind her own damn business every once in a while, make her an insensitive pest. And we’re being asked to spend about two hours with this woman. At least the driving instructor is getting paid for the ordeal. I’m sorry, but innately positive and cheery people who can’t understand why everyone isn’t like them piss me off. Besides, just ‘coz someone’s not an insipid, giggly bobble-head all the time doesn’t mean they aren’t perfectly content in life.
I do have to admit, however, that there’s a really marvellous scene between Poppy and a sad, weird homeless guy. It shows that Poppy clearly has a big heart, even if she has no sense of self-awareness…or any kind of awareness, really. In fact, there are exactly three scenes in the entire film where Poppy isn’t a complete tit. They show her to be sensible and empathetic. They are the best scenes in the film (aside from the very funny cameo by Karina Fernandez as the one person who might actually benefit from some of what Poppy has) and stand out like a sore thumb because the rest of the time, she’s an excruciating tit of a woman. It seems to be the tale of two Poppy’s, really, which is just poor filmmaking. The Poppy who is attentive, empathetic, and intuitive in one scene can’t possibly be the self-absorbed, bubble-headed knob of the rest of the film.
I can’t deny that some of the scenes with Poppy trying to get at Marsan are amusing and not just because of the wonderfully taciturn Marsan. Marsan has one especially hilarious bit talking about the Washington monument, which I won’t spoil, and an absolutely priceless reaction shot when Poppy tells him she’s a primary school teacher. But one feels like the dynamic going on here is like a two hour episode of “Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave ‘Em”, except Frank Spencer was always loveable and that show was often painfully hilarious (one of the best sitcoms ever made). This film is frequently aggravating, and pretty damn thin. I really wouldn’t mind this film so much were Leigh not so firmly in Poppy’s favour. He makes people like the Marsan character out to be the problem, when really the problem is Poppy and her lack of self-awareness and the feelings and personal space of others. We’re supposed to think that Poppy would be so much lesser if she lost her sunny qualities, but Leigh doesn’t realise how far he and Hawkins have overpitched things to the point where the racist, angry instructor is more sympathetic. Leigh eventually shows that Scott has a darker side that is indeed problematic, but by then one isn’t sure if it’s not Poppy’s fault for driving him fucking volcanically insane in the first place. I mean, this woman does NOT belong behind the wheel of a car if she can’t focus her attention on any one thing for more than two seconds. She needs medication, immediately. I also don’t think the film ends as well as it could have to be honest. It almost leaves one feeling like the whole thing was pointless.
The seriously off-putting main character keeps one at arm’s length throughout. It’s a love it or not film, clearly. I’m in the latter camp, but not quite as firmly as I was expecting. I can see why some people love it, but believe me, the rest of us hate you so much. I didn’t hate the film though, even if I’m a million miles away from liking it. Oh, and I fucking hate the expression ‘Happy Go-Lucky’, and can barely tolerate most people fitting that description. If you’re a fan of films like “Shirley Valentine” and “Educating Rita”, and love actresses like Julie Walters and Brenda Blethyn, you’ll likely enjoy what Leigh and Hawkins supply here. I loathe this kind of thing, so I was surprised to find I was able to stomach this. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?