Poppy Cross (Sally Hawkins) is a most curious Mike Leigh creation. In contrast to so many of his sad-sack Londoners who muddle and shuffle through dreary, uneventful lives, Poppy is fanatically upbeat; so mindlessly cheerful, in fact, that she all but begs to be strangled and dumped in an alley. By turns, she is peppy, spirited, quirky, and endearing, and though incapable of answering a question straight without endless asides, she never lacks for an opinion. No, not of the enlightened variety, or even the mildly observant, but rather the kind that call attention to her complete detachment from reality. In other words, she’s the woman who strolls into your bookstore (as in the opening scene) and rather than quietly look up and down the shelves, she talks your goddamn ear off in the perverted effort to make herself known. I have no idea why she entered the bookstore to begin with, as she is not at all the type who could sit still for the required time to finish a book. I doubt she could even get through a single page. Instead, she’d rather spread a little color around her dreary surroundings, which means dressing as if Cyndi Lauper’s wardrobe were suddenly back in fashion and acting as if she’s paid by the facial tic. Poppy Cross, then, is a nightmare; a bloody irritant who makes Johnny from Naked an attractive dinner companion by comparison.
Without question, one’s ability to endure this film is dependent on whether or not one finds Miss Poppy a loveable nut, so count me the fuck out from the start. I hated her from the opening bell, and by the finish – exhausted and drained as I was – I couldn’t help but hope that she was masking deep insecurities that would lead to her messy suicide. Only that would be too easy. Leigh, as one of the world’s finest directors, is not about to offer such an oversimplified head case as a character, now is he? So Poppy grins like an ejaculating seal because she’s overcompensating for wounds inflicted in childhood? Maybe sexual abuse or abandonment? Such dime story psychology is beneath a man of Leigh’s stature, and not for a moment did I believe it. No, Poppy is the real deal, and I take her at face value. She is genuinely happy, without a hint of ironic detachment, and Leigh is presenting her without a lick of shading or ambiguity. So now what do I do with her? I’m used to vicious, hell-bent losers on a Leigh canvas, so what can be done with a sweet young thing whose only response to life’s sting is to chuckle like a school girl? There isn’t a morose or somber bone to be found in this one. What, then, is Leigh up to? What possible reason could he have for making this movie, other than to say such people exist, now deal with it? I considered that rather matter-of-fact possibility, but couldn’t wrap my arms around the dilemma.
Surely the most wonderful thing about a Mike Leigh film is the lack of plot or any clear agenda. Here, Poppy’s “adventures” are no different. She walks about, has drinks with friends, talks a bit in the sack, takes a dance class, works as a primary school teacher, and eventually meets a guy. Nothing overly dramatic, and thank fuck for that. Leigh’s world is observational, without the stain of judgment, and there’s no particular reason anything happens at all. The only real shift occurs when Poppy takes driving lessons from the mad bigot Scott (Eddie Marsan), who is as close to an opposite as Poppy is ever likely to meet. He is stern, rigid, humorless, and prejudiced to the core, though his demeanor does little to alter Poppy’s jovial ways. Eventually, Poppy’s endless rounds of good-tidings are misinterpreted as flirtatious by the dim driving instructor, and he lets loose with a tirade so cutting even Poppy is stopped short. He’s dead-on, of course, and has nailed her unmistakable (though unintentional) narcissism, but she doesn’t let the cruelty of the remarks stop her from being the world’s clown princess. In fact, I’d gather that Poppy is less offended than perplexed. It’s likely Scott is the first person who has ever fought back against her parade of positivity, and her low wattage upstairs might take a little while to get around to a conclusion.
Absent a pointed commentary about happiness being a sinister cover for deep inner loathing, we are left with a fanatical woman who appears to have it all, but only because she runs with a pretty limited crowd. Her friends won’t be attending
Oxford any time soon, except perhaps to snake the toilets and mop the floors. Is, then, Poppy a heroine for our times? Is Leigh using her much like a Forrest Gump to point out that innocence has no real chance in a world gone mad? I doubt it, especially after watching Poppy interact with her date. Their first encounter is limited to torturous pauses, quips, and random observations, and at no time do we feel a genuine connection. I’m not even sure there’s sexual heat. But fuck they do, perhaps out of want of anything better to do. This might mean something if Leigh were pounding away at the dullards that make up London’s working class, but he’s always been their champion in the past, even if he had to come to his affection the hard way. But Leigh is in their corner, and he always highlights their lives with such consideration and empathy that I can’t help but think that Poppy is yet another loving creation. Surely he recognizes how obnoxious she is, and because she lacks another side, we are forced to accept the whole Poppy, hives and headaches be damned. Leigh wants us to see the entire human family, and how like him to send us the worst imaginable so that we might be challenged to confront our own prejudices and levels of tolerance. Not this time, Mike. It’s okay, though. I’ll be back.