Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is cycling 'round London town, waving at pedestrians, merrily dodging cars, her face abeam. In the opening minutes of Mike Leigh's oddball and ingenious
, we already know a lot about its protagonist: She's upbeat, friendly, indomitable.
Either that, or she's totally stoned.
So Poppy, who turns out to be 30, single, a school teacher (and not stoned, although she partakes now and then), locks her bike to a railing. She trots off to a book shop. When she comes out - after failing to chat up the grumpy clerk - her bicycle is gone.
"Oh no, I didn't even get a chance to say good-bye," Poppy exclaims with chirpy disbelief, before jogging off to do whatever it is she has to do.
Cranks and cynics are going to have a hard time with Poppy for a while. How can this woman, who shares a flat with a fellow teacher, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), be so steadfastly jovial in the face of all the angst and woe of modern life? Doesn't she have a dark side, a deep-seated sadness, days when it all feels like hell?
Leigh, the sly surveyor of working-class British life (and a few historical side trips, including his glorious Gilbert and Sullivan biopic,
), eventually answers those questions - sagely. In many ways,
is the flip side of the director's searing 1993 masterwork,
, in which David Thewlis played a bitter, angry drifter.
The fascinating thing about Poppy - as she deals with a troubled kid in class, dates a social worker (Samuel Roukin), visits family, and hangs with friends - is that her resilience and optimism aren't superficial. They're hard-won, and function as a means to making connections and as protective armor. Hawkin's portrayal is a marvel.
Poppy's unsettling relationship with a driving instructor (Poppy never replaces that bike, deciding instead to finally learn to drive) provides the central conflict, and tension, in
. Scott (Eddie Marsan) is a seething racist) with a creepy crush on his new student. He scolds Poppy for wearing boots; his eyes bulge with jealousy when he discovers that she's dating. He's a sad stalker, and Marsan, spewing venom, is brilliant.
Leigh's "process" of moviemaking is legendary and still cloaked in mystery. He workshops his characters and scenarios for months with his actors before a shooting script evolves. As a consequence, even the smallest roles - a Spanish flamenco teacher, that sourpuss in the bookstore - feel fully-formed.
stays with you like great movies tend to do. It asks you to examine the inner mechanisms of human beings, cheerful and miserable alike. It's not about looking at a glass half empty or a glass half full. It's about drinking down what's in that glass and letting it fill your soul.
Directed by Mike Leigh. With Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Samuel Roukin and Alexis Zegerman. Distributed by Miramax Films.
1 hour, 58 mins.
R (profanity, adult themes)