Hawkins enjoys breakout role in Leigh film

Miramax

Release date: Oct. 10

Director Mike Leigh may be a Hollywood outsider, toiling away at his small, character-driven, improv-inspired films year after year. But ever since “Secrets & Lies” was nominated for five Oscars (picture, director, actress, supporting actress and original screenplay) in 1997, he’s been no stranger to the Academy. In 2000, his period dramedy “Topsy-Turvy” garnered four nominations, including two wins for costume design and makeup, and in 2005, his abortion drama “Vera Drake” earned three major nominations, including his second directorial plaudit.

With his latest, “Happy-Go-Lucky,” which critics are calling his funniest and most upbeat gem, the U.K. veteran may yet again crash the American industry’s biggest party. All eyes are fixed, in particular, upon newcomer Sally Hawkins’ starmaking performance as Poppy, a free-spirited primary schoolteacher whose unflagging optimism is tested — in slight and unpredictable ways — throughout the story.

Known only for small roles in previous Leigh outings and a widely praised turn in a recent PBS Masterpiece Classic production of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion,” Hawkins won Berlin’s Silver Bear for best actress earlier this year. Since then, critics have continued to salivate: The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis called the young British actress “glorious,” and her performance “recognizably human and every inch a calculated work of art,” while the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert simply wrote: “She is a joy to behold.”

While the film may be a slow-starter at the box office, widespread positive blurbage has helped deliver strong per-theater averages on a limited number of screens and should sustain momentum through the award season. Hawkins’ infectious performance has potentially the best chance of wooing voters, but Leigh has also been a standard-bearer in writing and directing categories as well.

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