We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Austen-related films: _Happy Go Lucky_, a gentle film; _The Ice Storm_, cruel beauty · 6 November 08

Dear Friends,

Yvette and I went to see Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky (starring Sally Hawkins) last Sunday, and I write to recommend it, and also say (as is so counterproductively common) it’s misleadingly characterized in the popular reviews and its own trailer. It is not some zany romantic comedy played for wild laughs. It has humor but much of it is a quiet sort—for the trailer each small joke in the movie was run together with fast paced music to give a false impression.

The movie builds up a portrait of Pauline or Poppy Cross (played by Sally Hawkins) who—it slowly, gradually, emerges—is a primary school teacher who lives with her lover, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) . The operative important words in my first sentence are slowly, gradually, emerges. What is remarkable is at first there seems to be no story at all; it’s hard to pick up what’s happening for you are breaking into a slice of life where the principles speak with strong local London accents. This use of strong accents is part of the insistence in the film this is no elite group; when Zoe is seen reading, it’s a junk thin off-pink & red paperback with a title something like “kinky sex”; this is no special side-group living freer lives than everyone else.

The story line is double with an interlude. Poppy is taking driving lessons with one Scott (Eddie Marson) who bullies her and shouts at her and is difficult and cross; gradually she begins to see and so do we he is a deeply troubled man, near high violence towards her, deeply resentful of her overt sexual dress and behavior, and in a final scene of shouting at her, he explodes in a misogynistic wrathful denunciation that makes her tell him she will have no more driving lessons with him.

The second story too comes out over a male: a young boy is noticed by the camera beating another boy up, then Poppy notices his violence at a second boy, then bullying, then finally she takes her worry over this to the headmistress, Heather (played by Sylvestre Le Tousel, as ever perfect in her role, and to me delightful here because it’s the very first time I’ve seen her in made-for-cinema movie out of 18th through 19th century costume), and they send for a social worker, Tim (Samuel Roukin), and the three of them in a remarkably tender kindly scene with the boy, prod him into revealing to them (amid much praise for his work which is also put on the desk before them) that his mother has a boyfriend who is hitting him all the time.

Kindness, gentleness, tender looks, that’s the ticket of this film, and it comes from Poppy who amid her apparent inarticulateness and continual laughter has a proverbial heart of gold. This is made explicit in the moving closing sequence where we see Poppy and Zoe out rowing in a boat in a beautiful green park landscape where the camera slowly moves away to give us a single framed longshot so we glimpse high up and see—what else?—a white temple of the type I’ve seen in ever so many costume dramas (from the Pallisers’ opening sequence in a vast green park to so many Austen films, and recently the very poor Brideshead and intersting Atonement). The two are rowing away and Zoe is telling Poppy she’s too good and should report the driving instructor, for a couple of days before the final blowup he was seen stalking their small apartment in a run-down area. Poppy says she doesn’t think it necessary for he really values his job, and as it emerged in their quarrels, has a mother he lives with and values. As they row on and talk of how to cope, we have an emblem of two committed loving people. A metaphor for their coming life together.

Interludes: Poppy and Hearther are going to flamingo dancing lessons, and we get a long marvelous sequences of the teacher’s soliloquies on dance and the women dancing making splendid hits with their heels. At the opening before we get to know who they are, Poppy, Zoe, and Poppy’s sister, Suzy Cross (Kate O’Flynn) go clubbing and the film-makers managed both to convey the abrasiveness, noise and pathetic nature of this ritual of young people and its exhilaration and release and yes fun (the girls do stick together and will not allow themselves to be picked up; later we realize one dialogue which seemed to be about their age, near and over 30, also referred to Poppy and Zoe as lovers).

The longest is one to Poppy and Zoe’s other sister, Helen Lightfoot. They and Suzy are seen planning to go,most reluctantly, on a family visit (must do these things), in their battered yellow car. We come up to a square cheap looking box house out of which comes a very pregnant sister—in one of these new non-pregnancy pregnancy outfits and her husband. The visit is meant to be cheerful, consoling togetherness but there are several explosions: the wife will not permit the husband to play some video game with Suzy on the TV; the house is admired, including a small green yard with barbecue and chairs, but the admiration is forced. In a dialogue where Poppy is all good-nature congratulating Helen on her pregnancy (and gets for her trouble resentment over an implied reference to Helen’s “fat” state), an important dialogue: Helen wants to know when she will marry; we don’t then know that Poppy and Zoe are partners and that Helen would know this; Poppy is driven to say she likes her life, likes it a lot and doesn’t want to live differently. She says this to her driving instructor too.

Neither appears to believe her, but by the film’s end we know that Poppy has it right and they don’t or at least are not happy and don’t allow others to be happy around them.

Flaws: Sally Hawkins delivers an astonishing performance but she is so thin she makes Keira Knightley look fat. Her matchstick arms are not that way naturally. So her assertion she doesn’t care about fatness rings hollow by the reality of the actress.

No love-making between Zoe and Poppy is seen, but rather towards the end of the film, Tim, the social worker and Poppy go out and we do see them make love. It’s a casual kind of encounter which it is implied may lead to more, and Zoe apparently not jealous. I suppose someone not watching carefully might come away not realizing this is a movie about a lesbian couple.

I recommend hurrying out to see it before it disappears. It’s enjoyable and meaningful. No overdone hand-held camera work either. Whew. One becomes dizzy with that, but very good camera work in the car during the driving lesson, really captures the experience of driving in a modern city.

I think this movie could be put in dialogue with Lost in Austen, but rather than show why people said Lost in Austen was a defense of modern life, it would shore up how LinA is a retreat from this world. At moments Zoe reminded me of the mother of the heroine, Amanda Price, in LinA, the same wry desperation to appear conventional lest you find yourself without any human comforts or a job.

Sally Hawkins gives it its central quality of an intelligent gentleness. She repeatedly conveys quiet compassion, helps others without letting them know it. Her continual laughter is a kind of wand of kindness deflecting pain. She of course played Anne Elliot (in Shergold, Burke, & Snodin’s 2007 ITV _Persuasion) with startling brilliant, open vulnerability of a kind rarely attempted, much less achieved—and so I recommend it for itself and as indirectly shedding light on aspects of the central benign moods of Austen movies.

I discuss Ang Lee and James Schamus’s The Ice Storm in the comments.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. From Mari:

    “Hi, Ellen,

    What a very interesting review—I have a different take on one aspect of the movie though.

    I really do feel we are meant to assume or be uncertain as to Zoe’s and Poppy’s status at first, but that it is eventually made clear that they are not lovers in a number of subtle ways.

    Soon after the scene in which Eddie assumes they are lovers (and Poppy allows him to do so) we see a scene where Zoie and Poppy are lamenting the lack of good men.

    Also, what about the teacher who asks Poppy how her love life is? If she and Zoie were actually a lesbian couple I don’t think those around her would treat Poppy as single.

    I do feel too that the scene with the sister—if Zoie and Poppy were together as partners the issue of marriage simply wouldn’t come up. Children, yes, the mortgage, yes, but not marriage. It would be too uncomfortable a topic given the obvious problems in the relationship between these two sisters.

    Finally, you’d really have to assume Poppy is bisexual if she is in a relationship with Zoe —whether her dates with the school counsellor she gets to know are casual or more serious, she is clearly interested in him sexually as a man.

    The thing I love most about this movie is how it DOESN’T do what we expect on a number of levels.

    We EXPECT that some terrible tragedy will be discovered—it isn’t.

    We EXPECT that two single girls living together MUST be lesbian—they are not, I would argue.

    We EXPECT that these girls will want to better themselves in the conventional way—buying property, having a family etc etc etc. They aren’t interested in any of this.

    Also totally with you on how fantastic Sally Hawkins’ performance is—she grounds her optimism in reality and that makes the character real. It’s not that nothing bad happens to her; simply that she deals with the hard things in a very different way to most of us.

    This became rather long, sorry! I love this movie though and was delighted to see that you had reviewed it.

    Elinor    Nov 8, 8:33am    #
  2. Thank you to Mari.

    As I said, the movie is clever in not giving us any explicit sex scenes between the women so those who are uncomfortable with their bisexuality can deny it. There are a number of dialogues in the movie which make the partly sexual basis of the relationship of Zoe and Poppy explicit in words. The striking one is in one of the quarrels between the belligent and indeed disturbed driving-teacher and Poppy. The lament is partly ironic, but as we see they are not against going out with men too. They are relaxed, an open partnership is what they have. That her utterly conventional sister urges her to have children is no argument the girls are not lesbian. She is pretending not to see the obvious. The teacher's comment is a good-natured teasing.

    A good deal of Mari’s response is devoted to denying any lesbianism it will be noted.

    I didn’t expect these two young women to want to buy property or marry. Bettering themselves? The whole point of showing us Poppy at her job is to make us feel she cannot do better than she is doing in the world. To question materialistic and prestige values.

    They bop about in that shabby yellow car which does not put them in debt—nor does their flat in the inexpensive neighborhood with many non-white types about. They enjoy themselves, go dancing, clubbing. They don’t drink as much as many British characters—especially men. Like the lack of sexuality except with the young man, Hawkins’s anorexic body, and the lack of any intellectual interests in any one, this is another sop to comfortable stereotypes. Men can drink and it’s manly. Women drink and court “disgrace.”

    I found no disaster waiting to happen, unless it be that the driving teacher might go bananas, over the top, and suddenly take out a knife and begin to stab Poppy to death or rape her. The feeling the movie set up was this was not probable with this weak man, and he did not take her outside the main streets of London. Of course nothing was stopping him from doing just that. (He was another instance of the miseries of conventional sexual attitudes.) Apart from this, there is no disaster, only common miseries, self-imprisonments (her sister’s and the husband who lets the sister order him about to keep the peace).

    The movie really did fit into the trajectory of Austen-type movies and I too like kindness and comfort. It also went beyond them in its stout refusal to uphold any luxurious dreams and its quiet attack on the insistence a women can only be fulfilled in heterosexual marriage with pregnancies. In this it was better than some of the egregiously materialistic and luxurious films; some of them, to be fair (e.g., the 1983 MP) took a Chekhovian stance.

    Elinor    Nov 8, 8:44am    #
  3. From Mari:

    “Hi, Ellen! I should have put "bettering themselves" in quotes, of course these women don’t need to accept society’s judgement about what constitutes a “good life” and I liked very much that they didn’t. As a single woman of about their age, it was very refreshing to see a movie that questioned the idea that the marriage mortgage kids trajectory is the best way to be happy. I’ve always thought, why? Who says? Also, I said the subject of marriage wouldn’t have come up. Children, yes, buying a home, yes, but not marriage. The sister would have to be unbelievably insensitive to do that if Poppy and Zoie are long term sexual partners, maybe she is, who knows. I really didn’t mean for you to feel I was attacking your reading, I found it very interesting and am really sorry if I offended you in any way. Warmest wishes, Mari”
    Elinor    Nov 8, 11:54pm    #
  4. I’m not at all offended, but I am glad to hear your qualification. What you wrote tonight I can agree with. The portrait of the sister is probably a caricature. As in Austen and much art, this movie uses caricatures. The psychology suggested is over-the-top so as to make a thematic point. Hers is the imprisoned life: think of her as a Mary Musgrove who bullies her husband. The conversation is even spiteful since there is this incessant drumbeat that a woman must be a mother or she cannot be happy (all the while she is resenting getting fat and takes her sister's remark about how well she's looking as spiteful): she is rubbing it in that Poppy has a woman instead of a man. Of course Poppy also goes out with men. It's an open partnership ...

    Elinor    Nov 8, 11:55pm    #
  5. Another film related to Austen films:

    Early yesterday evening I watched Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. The screenplay is by James Schamus and available. I was so startled by the sordid (but I admit probable and realistic sexual behavior of the couples and their adolescent and teenage children) that if it had not been by Ang Lee, and thus of interest to my project on Austen movies (his is one of the finest of them all, the 1995 S&S), I would have stopped watching.

    I have a low tolerance for accepted banal cruelties & bullying; I didn’t hate this element of the film as it was clear the director condemned the behavior or at least the parents’ allowing the teenagers to carry on and the evening sexual party (the couples all put in keys and those who stay the night are expected to go home with different partners depending on which key is taken up in a lottery); the ending showed how ugly and tragic could be the results of such indifference, neglect, carelessness of human feeling, and weakness (of the parents towards ugly impulses in children). By contrast, I felt such a sense of moral revulsion to You and Me and Everyone Else where the same behaviors were shown but not condemned, indeed treated as an amusing joke—that I wrote a blog making visible its pernicious social norms. (It’s a film by a woman, by the way, clearly a moral imbecile). Reading the screenplay has persuaded me the novel by Rick Moody is a crass or vulgar version of John Cheever's kind of fiction about upper class people.

    Schamus and Lee’s two worst characters, the meanest, and cruelest and greatest bullyers, one of whom (the teenage girl) may be said to have precipitated the death of one of the teenage boys with which the movie ends, were both women. The men in the film were seen as weak, and they were presented as somewhat emasculated when it came to aggression (very like Sense and Sensibility this latter presentation of men, also Brokeback Mountain).

    The Ice Storm is much admired. I can see it's a beautiful (spectacularly in the depiction of the ice storm itself) film. I call it "Austen-related," for like some novelists, Ang Lee seems a film-maker whose content and angle (domestic sensibilties) often resembles that of women’s films. The film ends in the anguish of the father whose son had been killed; and the comfort of the family whose son returns home to them, having chosen safety and family love over sex, drugs, and "thrills" in a Manhattan apartment. I suppose one could say the film has an awful beauty we feel through this anguish and relief.

    On its probability: in the 1970s the Admiral and I were invited to sex parties three times, twice by women I was friendly with who were married. Once I was told of one and invited by an unmarried friend who said you were required to take off your clothes and have sex with anyone who asked you. Or don't come. Some people would have sex with more than one person at a time. Needless to say (?) we didn't go. As a teenager, I had some traumatic and searing experiences of sex inflicted on me by others after school; I was unable to cope with aggression and could have been accused (and was) of inviting these episodes. I've read it's common for US teenagers to have sex for the first time in their parents' or a neighbor's house while the parent or neighbor is out at work.

    Elinor    Nov 10, 10:32am    #

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