Directed by Mike Leigh
We’re introduced to Poppy as she rides her bike around London’s Camden Town, popping into a book shop only to have her bike stolen. While most of us might get upset, she never stops smiling, always quick with a comeback to everything happening around her, whether it’s a day-after post-party comedown with her friends or just experiencing life as it happens to her.
Needless to say, Hawkins’ stunning performance is what will leave the most lasting impression. It’s a magical character unlike any we’ve seen before, and Hawkins is an absolute ray of sunlight in the role. Possibly the closest character we’ve seen to Poppy is Amy Adams’ Giselle in “Enchanted,” although this one is based completely in reality. Even so, the movie wouldn’t be the same without Poppy being forced to face the challenge of Eddie Marsan’s driving instructor Scott, a bitter loner who has no patience for her flighty quips. Both actors appeared in Leigh’s last movie “Vera Drake,” playing almost polar opposites to their characters here, but together with Leigh, they’ve created something unlike Leigh’s previous films, harking back to the lighter tone of “Topsy-Turvy.” When Hawkins and Marsan are on screen together in their four driving lessons, their chemistry–like mixing nitrous oxide with glycerol–creates some of the most memorable screen moments this year. Both characters are so engaging, that you can’t help but find parts of both them you can relate to. In someone else’s hands, this might be the makings of a formulaic romantic comedy, but in the hands of Mike Leigh, it becomes fodder for the exploration of two of the most basic human emotions, happiness and anger, taken to their fullest extreme.
Sure, one can readily see how Poppy’s demeanor might get annoying after a while, but compared to the dimwitted comic heroines we’re used to seeing in Hollywood romantic comedies, she’s such a breath of fresh air. What’s amazing is how readily Poppy is able to turn off her flippant behavior when she’s around the young children she teaches, particularly one boy with a serious problem. Other than the driving lessons, some of the more interesting scenes are those between Poppy and her roommate and best friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), whose worldview is closer to the cynical optimism we all thrive for. The movie is filled with a lot of subtle humor, but clearly the funniest tangent for the film is the bizarre flamenco dancing lesson where the teacher, played by Karina Fernandez, gets a little too emotional, a hilarious punchline to a very funny scene.
Some of the scenes in the movie might seem unnecessary to the overall story, seemingly acting as red herrings to where the story might go, like whole tangent of Poppy throwing off her back jumping on a trampoline, complete with chiropractor’s visit. What these scenes achieve is to show many different sides of this multi-faceted character. We learn far more about Poppy through her interaction with co-workers, friends, family and even complete strangers like a homeless man (Stanley Townsend) suffering from such severe psychosis you feel Poppy’s putting herself in danger. It’s certainly one of the oddest scenes in the film, but it gives another example of what a caring and compassionate woman Poppy is despite all her joking.
For the most part, the film follows Poppy along a fairly normal daily routine, but as the film progresses, we start to see the cracks in Poppy’s never-failing humor, especially once her relationship with Scott finally comes to a head late in the film.
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