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Happy-Go-Lucky is a 2008 British comedy-drama film written and directed by Mike Leigh. The screenplay focuses on a cheerful and optimistic primary school teacher and her relationships with those around her. The film was well-received by critics and resulted in a number of awards for Leigh and lead actress Sally Hawkins.


Thirty years old and single, Pauline "Poppy" Cross shares a Londonmarker flat with her best friend Zoe, a fellow teacher. When her bicycle is stolen, Poppy decides to take driving lessons for the first time in her life. Her driving instructor, Scott, is emotionally repressed, with anger problems and given to conspiracy theories, racism and misogyny. Scott is angered by Poppy's sunny personality and what he perceives as her lack of responsibility and concern for driving safety.

Poppy is devoted to her students, but her life isn't dominated by her vocation. She takes flamenco lessons with another teacher and a trampoline class (which leads to back problems and a treatment by an osteopath), and enjoys an occasional evening in the local pub. She seemingly has no fear of strangers, taking the time to interact with a mentally ill homeless man while on the way home one night.

At school, Poppy sees one of her pupils bullying his classmates. A social worker, Tim, is brought in to handle the boy's case. Through Tim and the pupil's interactions, the pupil tells them his mother's boyfriend has been beating him. After working on this case, Tim and Poppy begin dating.

Poppy, Zoe, and Poppy's younger sister Suzy go to visit another sister, Helen, who lives with her husband in Southend-on-Seamarker and is pregnant. Helen tells Poppy that she needs to "take life seriously" and plan for the future, but Poppy responds that she is happy with her life as it is. Helen accuses Poppy of "rub[bing] it in" and looking down on her, and a brief confrontation ensues which Poppy tries to defuse.

Returning from the visit, Poppy sees Scott standing across the street from her flat, but he runs away when she calls his name. When she confronts him at the beginning of her next lesson, he adamantly insists he had been visiting his aunt at the time she claims to have seen him. Scott drives dangerously while ranting against other drivers and society, and when he gives Poppy the keys to his car she tells him he is in no condition to give a driving lesson and she will drive him home. Scott demands that Poppy give him the keys back, tries to take them back by force, and then accuses Poppy of trying to seduce him in a long, unhinged diatribe. Unable to reason with him, Poppy waits until he has calmed down and then gives the keys back, telling him that him the lesson will be their last.

The film ends with Poppy and Zoe rowing a boat in Regent's Parkmarker, as Poppy takes a mobile phone call from Tim and Zoe advises Poppy to think about "giving up being nice to everyone." Poppy dismisses the advice, cheerfully but not naively.


The film is Mike Leigh's first shot in widescreen. It was made and distributed with the assistance of National Lottery funding through the UK Film Council, with £1.2 million awarded to the production company, and a further £210,000 awarded to the film's UK distributor.

The film was shot on location in Camden Lock, Camden Marketmarker, Regent’s Park, Stroud Greenmarker, Finsbury Parkmarker, Lambethmarker, and Tufnell Parkmarker in London and Southend-on-Seamarker in Essex.

In Behind the Wheel of Happy-Go-Lucky, a bonus feature on the DVD release of the film, director Leigh, cinematographer Dick Pope, and stars Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan discuss the logistics of filming the lengthy scenes in which Poppy is learning how to drive. Five miniature cameras were hidden throughout the vehicle, and at times Leigh was wedged on the floor behind the front seats. Although the actors were required to adhere to basic plot premises, a large percentage of their dialogue was improvised, forcing them to react to stimuli outside the car and interact in character while concentrating on their driving.

In Happy-in-Character, another DVD bonus feature, Leigh and the actors discuss how the director works with his cast one-on-one to help them fully create their characters before actual filming begins. Because Scott is such a troubled individual, Eddie Marsan thought he was preparing for a heavy drama, and it wasn't until he started working with Sally Hawkins that he realized how funny the film actually was.

The film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and was shown at the Dublin Film Festival before going into theatrical release in the UK on 18 April 2008. It later was featured at the Telluride Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festivalmarker, the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, the Athens Film Festival, the Mill Valley Film Festival, the Morelia Film Festival, the Chicago International Film Festival, the Warsaw International FilmFest, and the Tokyo International Film Festival.


Critical reception

Rotten Tomatoes reported 95% of critics were positive about the film, based on 76 reviews.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian rated the film four out of five stars and said, "Mike Leigh's trademarked cartoony dialogue, as ever lending a neo-Dickensian compression and intensity to the proceedings, is an acquired taste and I have gladly acquired it, though some haven't. I am not quite sure what I think about the big, final confrontation between Poppy and Scott. It is well-acted and composed, and Marsan is ferociously convincing, yet the episode is closed off a little too neatly, and Poppy seems eerily unaffected by this or anything else. The effect is a kind of odd and steely invulnerability: not unattractive exactly, but disconcerting. Hawkins plays it superbly though: exactly right for the part and utterly at ease with a role that is uniquely demanding. In the factory-farmed blandness of the movies, Happy-Go-Lucky has a strong, real taste."

Philip French of The Observer called the film "as funny, serious, life-affirming and beautifully performed as anything Leigh has done, but with a lightness of touch only previously found in his Gilbert and Sullivan movie, Topsy-Turvy."

Manohla Dargis of the New York Times called the film "so closely tuned to the pulse of communal life, to the rhythms of how people work, play and struggle together, it captures the larger picture along with the smaller. Like Poppy, the bright focus of this expansive, moving film, Mr. Leigh isn’t one to go it alone. Played by a glorious Sally Hawkins — a gurgling, burbling stream of gasps, giggles and words — Poppy . . . keeps moving forward and dancing and jumping and laughing and nodding her dark, delicate head as if she were agreeing not just with this or that friend but also with life itself. She’s altogether charming or perhaps maddening — much depends on whether you wear rose-colored specs — recognizably human and every inch a calculated work of art."

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times rated the film four stars and called Sally Hawkins "a joy to behold." He added, "This is Mike Leigh's funniest film since Life Is Sweet. Of course he hasn't ever made a completely funny film, and Happy-Go-Lucky has scenes that are not funny, not at all. There are always undercurrents and oddness."

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone rated the film 3½ out of four stars and commented, "Get ready for Sally Hawkins, a dynamo of an actress who will have her way with you in Happy-Go-Lucky, leaving you enchanted, enraged to the point of madness and utterly dazzled. No list of the year's best performances should be made without her." He added, "In lesser hands, the film would go off the deep end into cheap theatrics. But Leigh . . . keeps the emotions in balance by keeping them real. There's something raw in Hawkins that wins our empathy for Poppy. Thanks to her, Happy-Go-Lucky is more than a movie, it's a gift."

Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle stated, "The key to enjoying the film, a minor effort by Leigh, is warming up to Poppy. Her bubbly personality may be too much for some. She's like a walking, talking smiley face. Fortunately, as Leigh proved in Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake, he has a keen eye for actresses, and he has found in Sally Hawkins the consummate Poppy."

Time Out London observed "You know you’re watching something both delightfully light-footed and acutely meaningful when Leigh moves so nimbly between scenes at Poppy’s school, her flamenco class and her driving lessons . . . It’s a funny film . . . and, crucially, it aches with truth."

Top ten lists

The film was cited as one of the ten best films of 2008 by many critics, including Manohla Dargis, Stephen Holden, and A.O. Scott of the New York Times, Liam Lacey of The Globe and Mail, Ray Bennett of The Hollywood Reporter, Shawn Levy of The Oregonian, Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquirer, David Edelstein of New York, Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News, Kimberly Jones of The Austin Chronicle, Michael Sragow of The Baltimore Sun, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post, Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly, Dennis Harvey of Variety, and Steve Rea of The Philadelphia Inquirer.


Awards ceremony Award Category Subject Result
Academy Awards Best Original Screenplay Mike Leigh Nominated
Berlin International Film Festival Golden Berlin Bear - Nominated
Silver Berlin Bear (Best Actress) Sally Hawkins Won
Boston Society of Film Critics Best Actress Sally Hawkins Won
British Independent Film Awards Best Actress Sally Hawkins Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Eddie Marsan Won
Best Supporting Actress Alexis Zegerman Won
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards Best Actress Sally Hawkins Nominated
Detroit Film Critics Awards 2008 Best Actress Sally Hawkins Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Eddie Marsan Nominated
European Film Awards Best Film - Nominated
Best Actress Sally Hawkins Nominated
Golden Globes Awards Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical - Nominated
Best Actress in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical Sally Hawkins Won
Hollywood Film Festival Hollywood Breakthrough Award Sally Hawkins Won
London Film Critics Awards British Film of the Year - Nominated
British Director of the Year Mike Leigh Nominated
Best British Actress Sally Hawkins Nominated
Best British Supporting Actor Eddie Marsan Won
Best British Supporting Actress Alexis Zegerman Nominated
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards Best Screenplay Mike Leigh Won
Best Actress Sally Hawkins Won
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Director Mike Leigh Won
Best Actress Sally Hawkins Won
Best Supporting Actor Eddie Marsan Nominated
New York Film Critics Online Awards 2008 Best Films Top 10 - Won
Best Actress Sally Hawkins Won
Norwegian International Film Festival Most Enjoyable Film (Theatre Owners) Mike Leigh Won
Pula Film Festival Best Director (Foreign) Mike Leigh Won
San Francisco Film Critics Circle Awards Best Actress Sally Hawkins Won
Satellite Awards Best Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical - Won
Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical Sally Hawkins Won
Women Film Journalists Awards Best Film - Nominated
Best Actress Sally Hawkins Won
Best Actor in a Supporting Role Eddie Marsan Nominated
Best Ensemble Cast Whole cast Nominated
Best Screenplay, Original Mike Leigh Nominated

DVD release

The Region 1 DVD was released on 10 March 2009. It is in anamorphic widescreen format with an audio track in English and subtitles in English and Spanish. Bonus features include commentary by screenwriter/director Mike Leigh, Behind the Wheel of Happy-Go-Lucky, and Happy-in-Character.


  1. The Guardian, April 17, 2008
  2. UK Film Council Awards Database
  3. Rotten
  4. The Guardian review
  5. The Observer review
  6. New York Times review
  7. Chicago Sun-Times review
  8. Rolling Stone review
  9. San Francisco Chronicle review
  10. Time Out London review
  11. Metacritic 2008 Film Critic Top Ten Lists
  12. 2008 San Francisco Film Critics Circle Award winners: December 15, 2008 San Francisco Film Critics Circle Awards. Retrieved December 16, 2008.
  13. 2008 Alliance of Women Film Journalists Award winners: Dec. 15, 2008 Women Film Journalists Award. Retrieved December 16, 2008.

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