Other than Topsy-Turvy and Mr. Turner, both a little unusual, I have seen no Mike Leigh movies. A friend of mine recommended this one, and when it was there on Netflix, I jumped on it. What remains the same is the fact that it very talky and seems aimless, until you start to get the idea of how these films are full of tiny, unimportant-seeming details that are actually very carefully constructed. This one is all goofy and talky, but starts to develop some shape toward the end, then suddenly turns emotionally devastating, then ends. It turns out to be the best thing I’ve seen in some time, and stayed with me quite a while.
We open with Sally Hawkins as Poppy riding her bicycle around London. She’s quite happy and smiley and waves and smiles to a number of people. She parks it outside a bookshop and goes in, making cheerful conversation to the dour, silent clerk, even though he answers in monosyllables, if at all. She’s just that cheerful person, unbowed by people who are in bad moods or give her attitude. When she leaves, her bike has been stolen, which doesn’t bum her out that much, but does precipitate her arranging driving lessons. She goes out clubbing that night with Zoe, who turns out to be her roommate, and Suzy, her sister who lives nearby.
For a while, the movie just continues, and we see how go various places and have conversations with people, but even so, we can start to see the subtle structure and how the film unfolds. For example, we see Poppy and Zoe gather a bunch of materials and make a mask of a chicken. Why? Well, we find out, Poppy is a teacher of young kids, and making a bird mask is their project, and she made this one as an example. So the movie is happy to show something before you can really make sense of what or why it is.
She starts taking driving lessons fro this fellow named Scott, who is dour and serious, not responding at all to her numerous jokes or laughing. He upbraids her for wearing boots with high heels for driving, which are not optimal. They have a few more lessons, on one of which he sees black boys on bikes and warns her “Lock your door!” which she is shocked by. On another lesson, he goes on about how people are terrible and the world is a horrible place. She listens and seems completely impervious.
SPOILERS > > >
After some flamenco lessons and a trampolining accident, there’s a subtle progression of scenes. First, she sees one child bullying another at school. At her next driving lesson, Scott says something bitter, and she quietly asks if he was bullied as a child, to which he does not respond. She sees the one kid bullying another later, and pulls him aside, asking him why he’s so angry. She talks to her principal, and brings in a male social worker, who gets the boy to open up about being beaten by his stepfather. At her next lesson, as Scott is railing against multiculturalism, she asks him if he was an only child, but he once again clams up. In here he has once again railed against her boots, calling them “seductive,” and we get a glimpse that maybe he has a crush on her. Poppy goes away for the weekend, and when they’re returning, she sees Scott standing a distance away, gazing at her apartment. He runs away when she calls to him.
Well, Poppy starts going out with the social worker who helped her with the kid, and stays the night. He comes back with her in the morning, and Scott sees them, and that they’re obviously together. That day he is furious during their lesson, and she decides that their lesson has to stop. Only, she tells him he’s in no position to drive, and one might be surprised that she suddenly becomes quite tough and forthright, which she has only hinted at during the movie. He says there’s nothing she can do about it, and she takes the key. He then physically attacks her, until she has to get out of the car to escape him. They end up in the street, and he’ll only calm down once she threatens to call the police. He then goes on a long tirade about her, about how her entire point in taking lessons from him was to seduce him, and she’s been wearing attractive clothes this whole time, and she’s an attractive woman, what is a helpless guy like him supposed to do?
So, this is that devastating moment, and Poppy just stares at him, having had no idea that he was in love with her, and she—and us—seeming to marvel at how people in close proximity can be living in such completely different worlds. She seems sad and concerned for Scott without being condescending, and we are allowed to feel his shame and… well, just how sad he is. He makes a comment about how they’ll have their lesson next week, and Poppy has to tell him that no, they won’t be having any more lessons. Yeah, it’s devastating. Scott gets in the car and drives off. There’s a bit more [Poppy continues to be a happy person], but that’s basically it.
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So, it’s basically pitch-perfect, especially if you know what you’re in for with a Mike Leigh film: lots of seemingly aimless but careful detail, sudden emotional catharsis. My only small reservation is that Poppy is sometimes a bit over-chipper, with the assumption that we are to adore her no matter what happens, like when she is actually disrupting the flamenco class [which she is a guest at] with her constant laughing and mugging and look-at-me’s, to the point where a good slap in in order. The movie is for the most part very humane, but leaves a trace of bitterness that instead of trying to understand Scott, and see a little bit of where he's coming from, he is treated as the “other,” that weirdo angry person from planet psycho, and is OF COURSE racist and OF COURSE conservative. He may have been bullied, and may have been an only child, and now he is: THE WEIRDO. So the movie treats Poppy as though she is a rare and wonderful creature and Scott like he’s sad, but the kind of person who should try to whip it together and crack a smile or maybe just jump off a bridge, you know? Not the kind of person we need around here.
But this may be because, to be honest, in recent years, I have, for various reasons, become that angry, muttering person, fuming at the state of the world and the awful people in it. As such, it was not lost on me that the angry character is named Scott! All of which is probably why this movie made such a profound impact on me--although there’s no chance I would ever fall in love with a cheerful person. But I know there are lots of people out there who can recognize a bit of both characters in themselves, and have been on one end of the situation in which you realize that you and someone else are just living in completely different worlds. And worse, that other world has, over time and while you weren't noticing, become completely closed off to you forever.
So there you go! Regardless, a very good, winsome, sweet, bittersweet and emotional film from our good buddy Mike Leigh, with a wonderful performance by Sally Hawkins that will make you love her forever.