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Director Mike Leigh works the bright side of life with “Happy-Go-Lucky.”

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In “Naked” (1993), the movie that first brought English director Mike Leigh to the notice of many on this side of the Atlantic, we encounter a character who never met a grim idea he didn't like, and who seems intent on demonstrating to all and sundry why, in spite of any impression they might have to the contrary, they are in fact miserable. As if to counter this intransigent assertion of gloom, with “Happy-Go-Lucky” Leigh presents us with the chirpily named Poppy (Sally Hawkins), who is positively evangelical on the question of keeping the sunny side up, turning frowns upside-down, looking on the bright side. At first encounter, she's likely to strike one as either an insufferable airhead or a saint.

In anyone else's hands, Poppy would probably have spent the whole of a dreary film inhabiting one or the other of these apparently incompatible extremes. Leigh, however, along with the inspired performance turned in by Hawkins in a career-making role, continually deepens our understanding of this cockeyed optimist and her motives, so that by the end she stands out as one of the most completely realized characters to land on screen all year.
In the film's opening scene, Poppy tries to cajole a rather glum bookstore cashier into trading quips with her. “Don't want to be going there,” she chuckles, holding up a book titled “The Road to Reality.” He doesn't bite, and it's easy to sympathize with him. Who is this floridly dressed, irremediably perky young woman to be bullying him out of his perfectly reasonable sullenness?

The answer, it turns out, is complicated. As her reality-phobic one-liner suggests, there's a Peter Pan element to this kindergarten teacher, who outdoes her charges in enthusiasm for singing, hopping about, and generally throwing stodginess to the winds. But with friends, her conversation is likely to be peppered with offhand references to Paul Auster, Stravinsky, or past extended stays in Asia. Happiness here is not the last refuge of a bubblehead, but rather an elaborate method of filtering and confronting an impressively broad swath of experience. She has grown up, after all.

It takes some time for the film to put Poppy in situations that call out all the subtlety and modulation that Hawkins brings to the role, but once it does, they come thick and fast, and in disorienting variety. In a touching sequence showcasing the virtues of Leigh's insistence on extensive improvisation before filming, Poppy and a social worker (Samuel Roukin) have a wonderfully natural-seeming and even effective talk with a troubled boy about his violent outbursts. But Poppy gets something else out of this job-well-done: a date with the social worker, who ends up being — are such things possible? — a nice guy.

At the core of “Happy-Go-Lucky,” however, is a series of jarring encounters between Poppy and her disturbed driving instructor, Scott (a frighteningly intense Eddie Marsan). He, too, has come up with a way of coping with the shocks and dislocations of modern life, but it involves such things as weirdly naming car mirrors after fallen angels. What time is it when your driving teacher treats you to a paranoid disquisition on the numerological significance of the Washington Monument?

For most of us, it's time to get a new driving teacher, but Poppy takes his obvious misery as a kind of professional challenge. She chatters at him about taking charge of his own life and climbing “the property ladder,” to which he replies with increasingly apoplectic tirades against everything from Poppy's unsensible high-heels to the presence of Muslims on the London streets. “You celebrate chaos,” he snarls at Poppy, delivering what he considers an especially damning assessment. As if fascinated by her opposite number, she courts danger and sticks with him.

In one spellbinding scene, Poppy comes across a hulking, mentally ill homeless man (Stanley Townsend) in a deserted lot beneath a bridge. Towering over her, he rages and mutters by turns in response to her simple questions and show of concern. She's come out, we conclude, in order to meet just such a person and give him whatever comfort she can — she knows it's not much — even if it means getting bludgeoned to death. Cheerleaders for melancholy have often linked it with profundity. But it's Leigh's achievement to show that happiness, too, can have its depths, and even its darkness. (R) 118 min. HHHHH S

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