Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Unsung Performances: Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
When it comes to awards, comedy is never taken as seriously as drama. We forget sometimes that it takes as much skill to make an audience laugh as to make them cry, and we lavish praise of those actors who jump through emotional hoops, leaving more understated, less flashy performances in the shadows. When Happy-Go-Lucky was released in 2008, it garnered a few awards for lead Sally Hawkins (including a Golden Globe) but she was left out on Oscar nomination day. To be sure, there was some pretty stiff competition in the Best Actress category that year (Kate Winslet, the winner for The Reader, Meryl Streep for Doubt, Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married, Melissa Leo for Frozen River, and Angelina Jolie for Changeling), but I think Hawkins' performance is one that resonates and will stand the test of time.
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert described Happy-Go-Lucky as "the story of a good woman." It is indeed that, which is perhaps another reason, in addition to the film being a comedy, that Hawkins was overlooked. The work that goes into creating complicated and morally ambiguous characters is often easily recognized, but creating a character who is simply "good" and "kind" is like hiding in plain sight. We recognize extremes, not normalcy, and so Hawkins' portrayal of Poppy is natural to the point of being invisible, slipping just under the radar and easy to take for granted.
The key to Poppy, and to Happy-Go-Lucky's success generally, is the sincerity of Hawkins performance. Poppy is a relentlessly upbeat character, cheerful even when her bike is stolen, her sunny disposition unchanged in the face of hositlity from others. Her positive attitude never feels like a put on or an act; Hawkins makes us believe that this is just the way that Poppy is, that her determination to see the bright side so thoroughly sets the tone for how she engages with the rest of the world. There is no agenda with Poppy; she just wants to be happy.
Happy-Go-Lucky isn't all rainbows and puppies, however. There are dramatic moments, too, and Hawkins handles those just as well, using the scenes to more firmly ground Poppy in reality. Two scenes in particular - when she speaks to a disruptive student, drawing out a confession that he's being abused by his stepfather; and another in which she attempts to engage with a homeless man - in addition to the scenes between her and Scott, her driving instructor (played by the equally excellent Eddie Marsan), in which she tries to get to the root of his anger, show that the performance is more than just a shimmering surface of happiness. There is depth there, too, a fully rounded character whose actions never seem less than believable. I know that many people find the character annoying, but she won me over completely the first time I saw the movie and her ultimate lovability has been maintained with every subsequent viewing. Writer/director Mike Leigh is a master at crafting characters, but Hawkins' talent plays no small part in making Poppy so memorable. If you haven't discovered Happy-Go-Lucky yet (or Sally Hawkins, for that matter), I highly recommend seeking it out.