It is trite by now to observe the dual facts that Happy-Go-Lucky is one of the brightest and loveliest movies of the year, and that this is a surprise; but I can't help myself. It was after all directed by noted British misery-monger Mike Leigh, a man given to dark irony and emotional sucker-punches, and despite all the advance buzz, a little part of you still expects to find out that the title is ironic, and that the film is actually about a woman who gets poisoned to death on Christmas Eve. Not the case at all, and the film's exactly what it promised: Leigh finally discovers the entire other half of human experience that he's always ignored, and in the process directs his best film since Secrets & Lies, 12 years ago.

The film opens simply and elegantly: as Gary Yershon's cheery score is piped over the speakers, a large field of black is broken by a single small vertical rectangle, filled with the image of a woman riding here bike, as the credits roll. It might seem silly talk about the credit sequence this way, but think about how we're being introduced to our protagonist: in a whole great spot of black, she's the only thing we're being invited to look at and notice. We know nothing about her - only that she's on a bike, and there's a miniscule smile on her face - but already we've been subtly pushed towards realising that she's going to be at the center of everything that follows.

That woman is Pauline Cross, known to everyone as Poppy, and she is played by Sally Hawkins in what must be the best cinematic performance of the year, and if someone can show me something better, I shall eat my hat. This is Hawkins's third film with Leigh, after small roles in All or Nothing and Vera Drake; her most exposure, such as it was, probably came with Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream. Good performances all, but not one of them suggested that she had something like this hiding inside of her. Hawkin's performance is basically the same thing as Happy-Go-Lucky itself, which like most of Leigh's films was developed as a narrative by the actors and director, rather than written down ahead of time; and unlike most of his films (of the ones I've seen, Naked comes closest) almost completely eschews plot in favor of character study. It wouldn't be wrong to say that nothing whatever happens in Happy-Go-Lucky, which has a string of events and puts them in an order, but doesn't actually develop an arc out of that - not even one of those character-development arcs, given that Poppy is effectively the same person when the film begins as when it ends.

Instead, the "arc" - that's not the right word, but we'll have to live with it - is the audience figuring out who Poppy is by watching her in a variety of different situations. Basically, the film is structured like life: go to work, dance lessons after, drinking with friends after that, driving lessons on Saturday. We drop in on Poppy at various points in her life over a four-week span, roughly, get a sense of who she is, and leave.

As for that question of who Poppy is, that's the whole point of the movie, not the matter of a review. But in a nutshell, she's a woman who is very happy despite having what other people regard as an unfulfilling life. When we first meet her, poking around a bookstore, she comes across as pushy and annoying, and many of the film's scenes (and not just the early ones) serve to indicate that she's a dementedly positive person who refuses to acknowledge that life can suck, despite all of the evidence. Not the kind of person you'd like to spend a movie with. But the genius of Happy-Go-Lucky and especially Hawkins, lies in how the film reveals, more through action than dialogue and sometimes just from the look on Hawkins's face for a long close-up, that Poppy is very well aware that life can and usually does suck. Choosing to be happy isn't a means of denying that life sucks, it's a way of handling that fact: you can't change what happens by being sad any more than you can change it by being happy, but at least in the latter case you're not adding to your own and everyone else's misery.

That's a pretty strange argument for Leigh of all filmmakers to present, but the argument works, mostly because it is never lectured to us or even presented in a single bite. It's implicit in the whole film, in the way that Poppy interacts with the people in her life who aren't so carefree: her driving instructor Scott, an uptight and paranoid racist played impeccably by Eddie Marsan; her controlling, pregnant younger sister Helen (Caroline Martin); her good-natured but essentially mirthless roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman). There's incredible nuance to the performances here: you can see on Hawkins's face the little shifts that Poppy has to make to keep herself from sinking down among the negativity. I don't mean to imply, by the way, that Hawkins is the only good performer in the movie, the very opposite; but Poppy is undoubtedly the hardest character in the film to play, and the actress makes it look like second nature.

Throughout the film, we keep waiting for something bad to happen, something to challenge Poppy's good humor. It doesn't come in the inevitable blow-up with the tetchy Scott; and it doesnt' come in the film's most bravura moment, a meeting between Poppy and a muttering homeless man (Stanley Townsend) that starts out terrifying and becomes the single strongest endorsement of Poppy's outlook. It's only when it's all over that you realise: bad things did happen, they just didn't seem so terrible. I don't know what to make of Happy-Go-Lucky as a "type" of film: it's a drama about happiness that never really tries to make us laugh, but certainly never makes us cry. Basically, it's a masterpiece; a study of the human condition that makes the unexpected observation that the human condition isn't all bad, at that.