There are very few of us who really care nothing at all about the opinions of others; it would be more correct to say that these souls care about very few opinions on the world. Talk about anything of topical or historical importance and they will shun it as the drivel of the empowered; mention something minute and personal, however, and you will find that they indeed care because we all care for minutia. In a way, art may be understood as a choice of minutia. It is possible to write something artistic about a historical event, but sooner or later the event overshadows the artistic work and reduces it to the thrall of a captive historian. Real, enduring art has little historical significance: it is about the personal, the particular, the unique. We do demand that the setting of our story be appealing (I have a well-known weakness for the last two hundred years of non-wartime Northern Europe), and we should demand that the characters portrayed therein are moral beings with a clear sense of right and wrong. They need not be unwavering in their ethics nor, for that matter, bound to them. But they do need to know what they should and shouldn't do, and however they subsequently choose to act will give us an idea of what their value is as fictional constructs. Perhaps for that reason are some of us terrified by a character who can only be happy and considerate and upbeat, because in comparison to her our own pettiness is quickly revealed. And such a character is the protagonist of this charming film.
The title character is Pauline "Poppy" Cross (Sally Hawkins), whom we first encounter riding her bicycle through a working-class area of greater London. My ignorance of typical British diminutives notwithstanding, Poppy has all the pizzazz and hyper energy to live up to her name. She enters a bookstore more to be in the bookstore with the chance of human interaction in a civilized venue than to do any type of shopping or browsing. She accosts the lone employee, who ignores her, and we understand that this is what normally occurs in her existence: she extends a chipper hand and is shunned because people would rather maintain their bubble of indifference than care about a stranger. The next scene involves a club and some clubbing, the after-party comprising four slightly high young women bantering about the usual topics that good friends use to maintain their closeness. There is no discernible plot, unless one considers a loosely structured slice-of-life approach a welcome substitute, and Poppy's two closest female confidantes appear to be her best friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) and Poppy's younger sister Suzy (Kate O'Flynn). Poppy enjoys a series of scenes in which she is clearly the happiest person around, and we understand that it's not so much that she refuses to change but that the world is too moody and fickle for her to fit in. She has a life, albeit a rather plain one, and has decided to live it out instead of wishing for something else.
And here is where the layers of story are peeled back. We first assume Poppy to be an uppers-addicted disco swinger, but she turns out to be voluntarily alone and gainfully employed as a primary school teacher. We expect Poppy still to be unpopular among more conservative elements because of her gaudy outfits and laid-back mores, but she turns out to be as moral and scrutinizing as any old conservative. We expect Poppy never to have left that working-class part of London, but then are told that she traveled extensively in Southeast Asia and the Pacific teaching English. We also expect her at one point or another to encounter true adversity, and then we realize that adversity is defined by how you deal with it. Short of war, famine and the like, day-to-day adversity in a peaceful neighborhood replete with every middle-class cliché imaginable is really determined by the sufferers, who may opt to highlight their pain or simply make the best of their lives. That is the motto of the film, for better and worse, and nothing can derail it until Poppy decides to take driving lessons for the first time and is assigned to Scott (Eddie Marsan). Scott adds precisely what is needed in such a scenario: a second opinion on Poppy's happy-go-luckiness. He is rude, angry, lonely, bitter, and a few disenchanted adjectives more; yet he is greatly taken with Poppy's looks and congeniality, both of which seem to have been lacking in female form from his life for many a year. Their driving scenes have the necessary element of comic and straight man, but devolve by the end of the film into something far more serious and disturbing. Marsan's volcanic performance is so outstanding without being a parody that, despite his hijinks, we actually feel quite sorry for him and momentarily resent Poppy for her flippancy. Other small details so keenly observed as to be remarkable: Zoe's look of angst at Poppy's new boyfriend; the look the two exchange when hearing about a pupil being beaten by his mother's boyfriend; the way in which Poppy does not try to change people but simply won't sink to their level; the bickering about old subjects between Poppy, Suzy, and a third, much more bourgeois sister who have spent their life together; and the unsaid wounds of Poppy's family (something involving her mother, it appears). By the time we see her at the film's end rowing on a lake in this park, we are convinced that she is happy not because she is hiding a crate of skeletons, angst, and regrets. In spite of her quirkiness, she is simply mature enough to see that this attitude really is the only way to live.
Detractors have claimed that the whole production is overly improvised (a common Leigh tactic) – as if we never improvise in real life and real time from some other source: from parents' and friends' advice, from the role models in books and films, from what we think we should do and what we want others to think of us. Many reviews also commit the error of praising Hawkins for being so restrained in her presentation, yet I believe something else is at work here. Knowing Leigh's methods, Hawkins was likely selected not because she could perform the initial script, which probably existed in very broad strokes, but because Hawkins herself has nothing that could convince us otherwise. She is not beautiful, nor striking in any way; her age is around thirty; her body shapelessly that of a teenager; her smile neither the nicest nor the least sincere. It is in observing Hawkins, or Hawkins dressed up in Poppy's preposterously garish outfits, that one character late in the film sees as evidence of a need for attention, that we forget that she is an actress. Actors may need to be comely to further their career, and, to some degree, they may need to act. But certain persons are so physically striking that we always know when they cross our screen, even if we are not acolytes of the latest fads or gossip. For that curious reason, some of our more attractive stars and starlets are praised when they actually do what their résumés claim they have done for years. Not that films need to be about average people whom we could not distinguish from the rabble; but they do need to convey the sense of art that goes past what one handsome individual can or cannot do. To put it another way: if I am to learn something about art from a cinematic work, it must be that this work adds another line or interpretation to art's ultimate meaning. That line cannot include a name of an individual who happens to think himself bigger and more important than the cinematic work. Thankfully, being big and important is the last thing on Poppy's mind.