Effervescent comedy "Happy-Go-Lucky" offers a contempo slice-of-life seen through the eyes of free-spirited north London primary teacher,

Nearly four years after his dark period drama “Vera Drake,” iconic Brit helmer Mike Leigh is back with “Happy-Go-Lucky,” his mellowest work yet, and his most purely entertaining. Effervescent comedy offers a lighthearted slice of life seen through eyes of a free-spirited London schoolteacher, replete with lessons of various sorts and humorous comparisons of teaching methods. Less pointed and edgy than anything in Leigh’s oeuvre except “Career Girls,” it still gets by on its own diverting charms. Opening in Blighty on April 18, brightly designed pic should come near Leigh’s best domestic grosses and will be appreciated in arthouses worldwide.

Thirty-year-old Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is an ever-smiling optimist who tries to brighten the days of everyone she encounters with constant chatter and jokes. Colorfully clad, with jingling jewelry and clattering high-heeled boots, she’s also the type of person whose unending cheeriness can exasperate the morose mopes who often populate Leigh’s universe. However, unlike some of his past heroines, her external mannerisms don’t seem to mask underlying insecurities or hidden secrets.

Poppy teaches tots in a North London school as multicolored as the rainbow necklace she wears. For 10 years, she’s lived with fellow teacher and best pal Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), whose wry calmness makes her an excellent foil to Poppy’s breathless enthusiasm.

After her bike is stolen, Poppy decides to take driving lessons from the Axle School of Motoring (motto: “Good driving is no accident”). She and tightly wound instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan) have something of a personality clash as he tries to enforce rigid teaching methods; their subsequent encounters provides pic’s main drama.

Poppy also accompanies colleague Heather (Sylvestra le Touzel) to flamenco class, where passionate Spanish teacher (Karina Fernandez) puts the group of uptight Brits through their paces to hilarious effect.

Poppy eventually hooks up with Tim (Samuel Roukin), a social worker from the school system who admires her compassionate spirit. This development doesn’t go over well with Scott, leading to pic’s most dramatic confrontation.

Not since “Naked” has a Leigh pic concentrated so completely on a sole character, with Hawkins’ Poppy in every scene. In contrast to Johnny’s dark and disturbing journey through the city in “Naked,” Poppy’s peregrinations through London are completely life-affirming.

With vivid characterizations from the entire ensemble cast derived from Leigh’s trademark lengthy rehearsal process, pic feels as though it could have profitably spun in many different directions. Flavorsome scenes with sisters Suzy (Kate O’Flynn) and Helen (Caroline Martin) and brother-in-law Jamie (Oliver Maltman) suggest more going on beneath the surface. Indeed, several catalogs list the running time at 158 minutes, indicating scenes were left on the cutting-room floor.

Coming in at nearly two hours, pic unfolds at a good pace, slowed down only by a lengthy scene where Poppy tries to help a homeless man (Stanley Townsend).

Thin, fine-boned Hawkins, so good in small parts in Leigh’s “Vera Drake” and “All or Nothing,” manages to make what initially appears to be a scatty, irritating character ultimately endearing. Dark-haired and hazel-eyed, she sparks visual memories of Katrin Cartlidge, a favorite Leigh ensemble member who died in 2002.

Marsan (also from “Vera Drake”) gets some of the pic’s best dialogue, with long, paranoid rants about “the system.” His use of mnemonics to cue proper driving doesn’t rub off on Poppy, but “Enraha!” will surely be one of film’s most-quoted lines.

Shooting the first Leigh pic in widescreen, regular d.p. Dick Pope has fun with the frame — from Poppy’s bouncing into sight from below during trampoline lessons to a full-body horizontal view of her at the osteopath afterwards. Playful opening-credits sequence divides the screen into thirds.

Rest of the tech package is fine, although Gary Yershon’s jaunty string- and horn-filled score is, like Poppy, sometimes a little irritating.

Happy-Go-Lucky

U.K.

Production

A Momentum Pictures (in U.K.)/Miramax Films (in U.S.) release of a Summit Entertainment, Ingenious Film Partners, Film 4, U.K. Film Council presentation of a Thin Man production. (International sales: Summit Entertainment, London.) Executive producers, James Clayton, Gail Egan, David Garrett, Duncan Reid, Tessa Ross. Produced by Simon Channing Williams. Co-producer, Georgina Lowe. Directed, written by Mike Leigh.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Dick Pope; editor, Jim Clark; music, Gary Yershon; production designer, Mark Tidesley; art directors, Patrick Rolfe, Denis Schnegg; costume designer, David Crossman; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Tim Fraser, Nigel Stone; assistant director, Josh Robertson; casting, Nina Gold; assistant director, Josh Robertson. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 12, 2008. Running time: 118 MIN.

With

Poppy - Sally Hawkins Zoe - Alexis Zegerman Dawn - Andrea Riseborough Alice - Sinead Matthews Suzy - Kate O'Flynn Tash - Sarah Niles Scott - Eddie Marsan Heather - Sylvestra le Touzel Flamenco instructor - Karina Fernandez Tim - Samuel Roukin Helen - Caroline Martin Jamie - Oliver Maltman

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