Review Date: 11-27-08
Release Date: 4-18-08 (UK), 10-10-08 (US)
Runtime: 118 min.
Period: Contemporary 2008 (England)
Costume Designer: Jacqueline Durran
How I do love screener season. Sometimes they come in the mail; sometimes we are invited to the theaters. Screener season more than justifies the $800-some-odd in yearly dues to the Costume Designers Guild. We get to see all of the Oscar-contending movies for free, and many of these films have seemingly nothing to do with costumes. One such film is Happy-Go-Lucky.
You’d be surprised to know about costume designer Jacqueline Durran’s other credits, though. This is the woman who gave us Pride and Prejudice (2006) and Atonement (2007), big costume-dramas. Here, we get to see Ms. Durran’s softer, more playful, contemporary sensibilities. I loved what she did with the costumes here. She approached a contemporary film with the same attention to detail as a period film, and I think the result illustrates the characters, and the story, beautifully.
The movie centers on Poppy (Sally Hawkins), an unnervingly cheerful primary schoolteacher, in London. I didn’t know much about this film going in, but my movie-watching partner in crime (who happens to be British) had been warned beforehand that the lead character, Poppy, could be awfully grating, though she meant well. As a result, my friend thought Poppy was quite instantly charming, whereas I initially wanted to push her off a bridge. I am sorry that I didn’t get the early warning myself, because it took me about fifty minutes to even tolerate Poppy. Therefore, I am giving you the warning NOW: Poppy will seem pretty irritating at first, but just give her a chance, and don’t judge her right away. And while we’re at it, let’s have a moment of realization that this is a film made by Mike Leigh (Vera Drake), so let’s just say that cheerful might not be his strong suit. It’s an unlikely combination that somehow works.
We meet Poppy as she rides her bike to the bookstore, smiling and waving at everyone she sees. Inside the bookstore, she tries to “cheer up” the somber bookstore clerk. While in the store, her bicycle is stolen. Upon recognizing this, she plaintively remarks, ” I didn’t even get to say goodbye,” (to the bicycle) and keeps right on going.
In the first fifteen minutes of the film, we see Poppy in various settings: at a nightclub, at her school, talking with her flat-mate about life. This is the “get-to-know-her” phase, and she is smiling and unflappably chipper throughout. What we begin to see is that Poppy has a difficult time taking anything seriously (good or bad) and that she is remarkably child-like in her thinking, behavior and visual presentation.
Things start to get interesting when Poppy decides to take driving lessons. It is not clear that Poppy ever actually aspires to own (or even really drive) a car, but, at thirty years old, to take one’s first driving lessons underlines her child-like state. Her driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan) is the antithesis of her brand of happiness. He is rigid, sour, self-loathing, harbors pent-up anger and frustration, and screams at her while driving. It is interesting to see these two characters together – two teachers – with wildly different behavior and outlooks on life.
We finally get to see a glimpse of Poppy’s maturity when one of her young students is in need of psychological counseling. Here (for the first time), Poppy is focused, earnest, and somewhat maternal. She does, however, get the phone number of the cute school therapist who comes to the child’s aid. As it turns out, she hasn’t taken everything so seriously after all.
Meanwhile, Poppy injures her back (but continues to laugh through the pain). She takes flamenco dance lessons; she jumps on a trampoline. She shares drinks with one of her co-workers and talks about her time teaching in Thailand, Australia, Java and Vietnam. There is more to Poppy than meets the eye, as there is to every person, and it is at this point that I think Poppy and her message begin to win out over the relentless cheeriness.
In a scene that is kind of a non sequitur in the film, Poppy entertains a mentally ill homeless man in a very bad neighborhood. This scene is an island, apropos of nothing, coming from and leading to nothing, but it is designed to help the audience understand that what Poppy really wants to do is help. Her happiness is her choice, and while some would see her incessant joyfulness (and the spreading of it) as her mission, really it is here that we see that her purpose is only to help.
Along with her sister Suzy (Kate O’Flynn) and flat-mate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), Poppy goes south to a small beachfront town to visit with her pregnant sister and her husband. The lives of the three sisters could not be more different, and the meeting works to show Poppy’s outlook: she is happy with what she has, doesn’t seek more, and is content in the moment. Her pregnant sister does not share Poppy’s view and insults her. Poppy’s response: I love my freedom.
It is in this exchange where Poppy’s position is made most simple: happiness is a choice. Poppy has made the choice to be happy, unmarried, with no children, living in an apartment with a friend, at thirty years old. Some people can’t understand how that could be a good thing. Poppy chooses to look at her life from a joyous point of view, and that’s what makes it happy.
Poppy goes on a date with the school therapist, and ends up staying the night, getting to her driving lesson a bit late. In the car with Scott, it is evident that his anger is reaching a peak. He explodes in a fury of road-rage, driving like a maniac and endangering both their lives. In a lucid moment, Poppy sobers up and takes the car keys. Scott and Poppy have an amazing, heated exchange that sheds light not only on who they are, but who they have pretended to be, and how they have perceived the experiences they have shared. It’s heavy.
The movie ends with Poppy and Zoe rowing in a boat on a lake in the park. Poppy chatters with her new boyfriend on her cell phone, and we see that even on the heaviest of days, she still hasn’t taken life too seriously.
This is a British film, and it needs special consideration in that the issues at hand, the casual vernacular language used, the costume subtext, are all specifically British. In America, it is not altogether shocking for a person to be ebullient and cheerful. However, in the UK, with the prevailing sensibility being one of dark humor, gloom and sarcasm, it is indeed an anomaly. Britain spawned the likes of Morrissey, Eddie Izzard, Monty Python, meat pies and Ricky Gervais; think about it. To be stridently cheerful in London is to be different, to go against the grain, to reject the zeitgeist of a nation. I think it is important to note this. Viewing this film as Americans, we are doomed never to fully (personally) realize its relevance.
Poppy’s costumes are as peculiar and as colorful as she is. The first time we meet her, she wears high-heeled boots, lace tights, a denim miniskirt, a blue crocheted sweater, a denim vest, red hoop earrings and a red cherry necklace. There is a LOT going on in her costume, and the cacophony of pattern, color, texture and layers sums up her personality from the beginning. She rides her bike through town, in the high-heeled boots and miniskirt, oblivious to the impracticality of her costume. It’s really great; she doesn’t care.
The next time we see her is at the nightclub with her sister, her roommate and a few other drunken girlfriends. These girls are all wearing way too many accessories. Poppy wears a red faux fur coat that looks as though she harpooned Elmo, tanned him and made a short jacket out of him. They look like the quintessential trashy club girls, with too much makeup, too much jewelry, too much hair product, and too much to drink. By the time they get back to their flat, Poppy has pulled the cleavage-enhancing chicken cutlets out of her bra and is handing them around. Here we meet Suzy, Poppy’s sister, dressed in tight acid-washed peg-leg jeans, white sneakers, and a hooded sweatshirt with a graphic pattern that looks straight out of 1989. Suzy wears her hair in a ponytail with backcombed bangs; a few chunks of her hair are highlighted, (with her big earrings and heavy eyeliner) giving her an acerbic, disenfranchised, tough-girl vibe.
Poppy wears all kinds of color combinations and patterns throughout the film: leopard-print sweaters with lace tights, pink top and blue bra, tons of bracelets, a strawberry necklace; blue striped dress with multi-colored bead necklace, yellow bird earrings, yellow bracelets, pencils in hair. We see lots of lace tights and lots of bright, off-color bras, visible through and underneath her clothing. Poppy always looks slightly unkempt. As a designer, you have to frame these costumes as if Poppy herself is making these choices, putting outfits together. She lives in her own world, oblivious to convention and societal expectation. There is a haphazard quality to Poppy’s look, a happy accident feel of garments coming together in layers to illustrate her story. Poppy’s costumage is an explosion of color and texture – her costumes are the visual representation of Poppy’s state of mind.
In contrast, Poppy’s roommate Zoe is much more subdued in tone. Zoe wears hip, sporty clothing adorned with labels and brand names. She wears shirts from Nike and Lonsdale, and her colors veer toward the darker earth-tone range. In this manner, she is a good frame or background for Poppy’s audacious, sometimes garish color choices. They both come from the same world (way too much jewelry, big hoop earrings, funky styling) but they express themselves in ways that fit the individual (brash color, haphazard layering vs. subdued, cooler hues, sleeker lines).
At Poppy’s first driving lesson, she wears a sea foam green, off-the-shoulder printed sweatshirt, a red lace tank underneath, her high-heeled boots, and a ton of jangly jewelry (I imagine the sound guys must have had to have been restrained with straitjackets when the actress walked on set with four inches worth of metal bangles on her wrist, haha). The driving instructor admonishes her for her choice of footwear, suggesting she wear flats. She tells him that she doesn’t like to wear flats; that they (I’m paraphrasing) aren’t as sexy/don’t look as good.
The driving instructor wears a black denim jacket (bravo!) with dark pants and an unremarkable washed-out button-up shirt. This actor, Eddie Marsan, is so brilliant – he inhabits the character and the costume like a skin. The contrast in the two characters is readily evident, but it is augmented by the costumes and use of color: Poppy in sea foam green and red, Scott in black, washed out. Cheer vs. gloom.
Back in her life, we see Poppy at school again, wearing a green and blue striped dress, dinosaur earrings – more kitschy stuff. She goes to the doctor’s office to get her back checked out, and has to strip down for the adjustment – we see her undergarments: black lace tights, orange underwear and a pink bra. This random piece-iness of her costumage is brilliant; nothing matches. This visual disorganization harkens to a child’s instincts when picking out clothing – a child picks out a garment she likes, or that feels good to wear, regardless of color. A child would not think twice if their bra didn’t match their underwear because the rules of “matching” and so on are unknown to them, therefore they don’t apply (not like a child would wear a bra, but you get my drift). In this manner, Poppy’s lack of concern for visual order, or for what others think – particularly when she knows she will be getting undressed at the doctor’s office, and that these under-layers will be seen – is telling, related to her child-like state of mind.
Poppy attends a Flamenco dance lesson with her co-worker/boss. Poppy wears a big, long red and white striped sweater, huge white sunglasses, and her high-heeled boots. Most of the class wears traditional black dance clothing, with splashes of red in the crowd. Poppy stands out like a candy cane in a pile of ashes. She is a useless dancer, but she doesn’t seem to care; she is enjoying herself. Poppy’s co-worker/boss wears totally square, normalsville teacher clothing – a nice bit of work, to show that the world of the film is not just Poppy’s world – that she is indeed separate, other. Visually, we are again reminded of the message that Poppy is an anomaly in the world in which she lives.
After this point, there are some repeats of garments in our leading characters, which is appropriate, given their socio-economic situation. These are not people who have a ton of money to spend on clothing. They own a fair number of garments, and they wear those garments repeatedly. It makes for more fully realized characters, I think, to see their situation accurately portrayed in this manner. They don’t have brand-new clothes every day; they could never afford it.
Poppy visits her pregnant sister, and for the first time in the film, we see her wearing pants. Her sister, heavily pregnant, wears a bland lavender dress with sweater, her hair back in a barrette, neatly brushed. Suzy wears tight jeans and a plaid shirt, again with her hair back in a ponytail with tidal-wave bangs, big earrings, heavy eyeliner and a scowl. In this sequence, when the pregnant sister calls Poppy’s judgment and lifestyle into question, it is interesting and appropriate that Poppy wears pants. Poppy stands her ground, stating her position without getting worked up. Poppy triumphs in eschewing the societal morés that have already consumed her pregnant sister.
The showdown between Poppy and Scott is interesting. By the time we realize what is happening, Scott is out of the car, and Poppy is approaching him from across the street. It is here that we see their full costumes: Scott in his black denim jacket, black pants, and a rumpled shirt. Poppy wears acid-washed jeans, and an acid-washed denim jacket, with a small fabric flower pinned to the lapel. This is the first time that we’ve seen Poppy without a large swath of blazing color. In this costume, it is almost like all of the colorful juice has been squeezed out of her. She is forced to come to terms with someone else’s opinion of her, which happens not to be as positive and upbeat as she would like. I think that the choice of the acid-wash is really excellent in this instance – her lack of color tells us what she is feeling. Oooh, I loved it. Great work.
What I really like about this film is that it proves that good costume designers cannot be pigeonholed. A designer who does great Jane Austen can also do great urban contemporary. These design atmospheres are not mutually exclusive. Great costume design is about creating CHARACTERS, not necessarily about creating garments. A good costume designer puts himself/herself inside the head of the character and makes costume choices with the character’s mind. Period has very little to do with that. Thank you, Jacqueline Durran, for making that point so eloquently!