Mike Leigh’s films speak to theater lovers. He rehearses the actors for a long time, and he works with an ensemble of actors, which is something I care about. But my favorite thing about Leigh is that he makes movies that play more like life and less like movies. His images are always in service to his central characters’ viewpoint. “Happy-Go-Lucky” is a giant surprise for anybody who has watched his body of work. More often his central characters skew to the point of view of David Thewlis in “Naked” — people who are steeped in misery, caution and nihilism. Yet with “Happy-Go-Lucky” he has a character, Poppy, played by Sally Hawkins, who has chosen to be happy, and she carries her burden of happiness around, not as a badge but as a belief that is firm and true, if not unshakable. And she faces the same world that Leigh’s other characters inhabit. Poppy fights misery and terror and caution with happiness and she keeps facing antagonists. There’s a driving instructor (and several others) who antagonize her choice to believe in the basic good of people. She remains unflappable, not through denial but through goodness that emanates from within. Leigh does something that I haven’t seen a movie do before: He paints the human condition with a soul who says yes to all the realities of life. That’s what it takes to be human.
I had a sense of dread in the first few moments of the movie when Poppy gets a backache and goes to a chiropractor. Oh no, I thought. Here comes Mike Leigh — she’ll spend the rest of the film in the hospital! But no. She just keeps returning to her life. Later in the film, I let myself relax, and let her happiness wash over me, like a gift.
Steppenwolf veteran Terry Kinney directs the Broadway premiere of Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to Be Pretty,” to open April 2.