Page last updated at 13:05 GMT, Monday, 14 April 2008 14:05 UK

Leigh finds feel-good factor

By Liam Allen
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

"We are in dire times, we are destroying the planet and each other," says a weary Mike Leigh at the end of a long day of press interviews.

Mike Leigh speaks to BBC News arts correspondent Razia Iqbal

That such a statement comes from the mouth of a film-maker who has made his name from gritty and ultra-realistic depictions of life's struggles is no surprise.

That the film the 65-year-old writer and director is here to promote is positively brimming with the feel-good factor is.

Happy-Go-Lucky tells the story of 30-year-old London primary school teacher, Poppy - played by Sally Hawkins - whose infectious nature touches all those who encounter her.

Single, and surrounded by friends, it seems nothing can knock the wind out of her sails.

"I wanted to make a film that in some way went against the grain of the inevitable miserableness that's out there in the world," Leigh says.

"I want people to really enjoy this film. I think it's a film you can come away from with a very rich and positive feeling."

Positive performance

Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky
Bleak Moments (1971)
High Hopes (1988)
Life Is Sweet (1990)
Naked (1993)
Secrets & Lies (1996)
Career Girls (1997)
Topsy-Turvy (1999)
All or Nothing (2002)
Vera Drake (2004)
Happy-Go-Lucky (above, 2008)

Central to that positivity is the performance of Leigh's muse. Hawkins, 31, won best actress at February's Berlin Film Festival for her, at times, comedic portrayal of Poppy.

"I decided to make a film with Sally Hawkins at the centre of it and that meant that I would be able to create an energetic character full of vitality and life and that's what Sally Hawkins brings," he says.

Poppy's freedom seems a far cry from the life of the main character in Leigh's first film, 1971's Bleak Moments. In it, bored secretary Sylvia seeks release from the pressure of looking after her mentally-ill sister.

"The good news is that it is possible for women to be liberated from the old assumptions and the old subservience that women once had to bear in all walks of society," says Leigh.

But, he adds: "It would be dangerous and inaccurate to put our heads in the sand and pretend that all women have the choices and the freedom that young professional, independent women have.

"There are a lot of women still who are enslaved by the nature of their lives."

Leigh points out that Happy-Go-Lucky is "not unadulterated happiness". Its dark moments are chiefly provided by Poppy's neurotic driving instructor Scott, played by Eddie Marsan.

Crucially, Leigh says, the film is "a complex experience".

"It's about the real world and real kinds of people."

'Finding extraordinary'

Improvisation has played a key role in Leigh's creative process - from earlier works such as Abigail's Party through to Vera Drake. He says that is crucial to creating his brand of reality.

I think I've always been fascinated by life
Mike Leigh

"The truth is that improvisation - that's with the actors improvising in character, being the characters in situations so we can draw from that and build the action of the film - is central to the whole operation."

Leigh's ability to paint truthful and engaging pictures of contemporary Britain has given him a devoted following.

Best-selling author Mark Haddon, Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes and James Corden - co-writer of flavour-of-the-month sitcom Gavin and Stacey - are among those who name him as an inspiration.

Leigh directed Corden, who he describes as "a very talented lad", in 2002's All or Nothing. He speaks of Gavin and Stacey, which co-stars his ex-wife Alison Steadman, as if he was appraising one of his own films.

"What I like about it is that it doesn't do contrived stories, it just is what it is and it's just all going on," he says.

Corden has praised the veteran director's talent in "finding the extraordinary in the ordinary".

"I think I've always done that," says Leigh.

"I think I've always been fascinated by life from the earliest.

"It just is, to me, what's interesting and my storytelling is to put on the screen or the stage what I think is interesting and meaningful - which is life."

Happy-Go-Lucky is released nationwide in the UK on 18 April.

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