Mike Leigh's 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky, I'm once more impressed by how it benefits from a collection of strong performances. Leigh's screenplay for the film was Oscar-nominated - he has now been nominated seven times but has yet to win - and it's full of great roles. It's a mark of Sally Hawkins' ability that she can carry the role of the effervescent, goofy Poppy, a London teacher with a relentlessly sunny outlook and a gift for phrases that wouldn't be out of place coming out of Ned Flanders' mouth, without tipping the scales into irritation at the character's stream of perky banter. In so many other productions a character like Poppy would be saccharine and cloying, but in Hawkins' hands there's a perfect balance between quirk and real character. Hawkins has gone from strength to strength since Happy-Go-Lucky. She recently had a great run of films (well, apart from the NZ effort Love Birds with Rhys Darby); in 2010 and 2011 she had important roles in Never Let Me Go, Made in Dagenham, Submarine and Jane Eyre.
Eddie Marsan provides a superb foil as Scott, the embittered, seething driving instructor Poppy hires. Their driving lesson sessions are an intriguing test of Poppy's need to help everyone she comes into contact with, even if they're reluctant recipients of her aid. They're also a chance for Poppy and Scott's teaching styles to be compared in sharp contrast. Marsan is a great character actor, and has been picking up increasingly high-profile roles in recent years, thereby showing his versatility. He'd worked with Leigh before in Vera Drake, and seems equally at home in niche films and TV work as he is in multiplex fillers - he played Lestrade in the 2011 Sherlock Holmes cinematic sequel, but in the same year also played a role in Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur, for example.
There's a bundle of other likeable performances from Leigh's well-chosen supporting cast. Poppy's best friend and flatmate Zoe is portrayed with affable and wry charm by Alexis Zegerman and the two characters' warm friendship is a pleasant reminder of how reluctant many films are to depict female friendships without focusing on men. (There's that fiction rule, the Blechdel test - 'A work passes the test if it features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man'. Many films fail comprehensively, in part no doubt because women are dramatically under-represented amongst the ranks of film-makers).
Karina Fernandez is charming in her two scenes as a Spanish flamenco instructor teaching Poppy and her friendly school principal how to cope with the mysteries of that fiery dance. It's only a small role but as cameos go it holds the film up and provides a real comedic boost. And finally, Stanley Townsend is excellent as a mentally ill tramp who Poppy tries to converse with late one night while walking home. The scene is frankly terrifying, because by then in the film the viewer is strongly attached to Poppy and her wish to help others is so clearly putting her at risk. But Leigh is reluctant to demonise any of his characters, nor stereotype the mentally ill - it's an impressive depiction of two people struggling to connect in difficult circumstances.