Issue section: 

Director: Mike Leigh; Release date: 18 April

My problem with Mike Leigh is that he doesn't do subtle. In his films showing working class life, sometimes the Cockney is too Mockney and the characters are too caricature.

His latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky, has a clear message - it is better to go through life cheerful and open-minded than to rage through it, angry and suspicious. Who can disagree with that? But the two main characters he has making the point are one-dimensional and to me unconvincing.

Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a 30 year old London primary school teacher with a bright outlook on life, so cheerful and chirpy that she had me sympathising with the people she was trying to get to lighten up. We first see her trying to brighten the day of a dour bookshop owner who she just can't leave alone with her jolly quips. He doesn't respond and she sails off, seemingly unaware that her behaviour is more likely to annoy than connect. The trouble is we are meant to identify with jolly Poppy.

Then we have the other extreme - Scott (Eddie Marsan), Poppy's driving instructor. He is very angry indeed and a racist - he warns Poppy to lock the car door as two black guys come by and he often uses his hour's lesson for a rant against the "disease of multiculturalism". Poppy sees in Scott the same anger as the little boy who is bullying the other kids at her school and is being beaten by his stepfather. She asks Scott if he was ever bullied. Poppy for once says something serious and sympathetic to Scott after one of his rants: "It's not easy being you, is it?" But this is taken no further as she bids the unhappy Scott goodbye with a cheery wave and a "stay happy".

There is a bizarre sequence which shows us Poppy doing a Mother Teresa wandering at the dead of night in a very scary looking wasteground befriending a deranged homeless man. She asks herself, "What am I doing here?" and I couldn't have put it better myself.

Lots of Mike Leigh fans are going to love this film and I feel a bit curmudgeonly for putting any downer on it. Looking on the bright side, as Poppy would certainly encourage me to do, it is a fast-paced race through life in inner-city London and is rarely boring. Colours are bright. Poppy's dress style is as loud as her laugh and the classroom and street scenes are vividly portrayed. But it still lacked for me any real emotional investment in the characters.

I'd have liked to know what makes Poppy so relentlessly jokey and giggly? But then she would probably have just told me to "cheer up luv".