SIFF 2009: Poppy Shakespeare ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2009)

Sometimes I get a little twitch when a movie breaks down the “fourth wall” and a protagonist starts talking to the audience in the opening scene. When it works, it can be quite engaging (Alfie); when it doesn’t (SLC Punk), it seems to double the running time of the film. In the case of Poppy Shakespeare, the device pays off in spades, thanks to the extraordinary charisma and acting chops of an up-and-coming young British thespian by the name of Anna Maxwell Martin.

Martin plays “N”, a mentally troubled young woman who has grown up ostensibly as a ward of the state, shuffled about from foster care to government subsidized mental health providers for most of her life. She collects a “mad money” pension from the government, and spends most of her waking hours at a London “day hospital” (where many of the patients participate on a voluntary basis and are free to go home at night).

In an introductory scene (reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), we learn that most of the patients in Poppy’s particular day ward appear to gather not so much for the therapy group sessions, but to swap tips on the latest loopholes in England’s socialized health care system. Poppy is a a rock star in the group, due to her savvy  in working the system (she’s “crazy”, alright…like a fox).

She is a polar opposite to Cuckoo’s Nest hero R.P. McMurphy. Rather than looking for ways to break out of the laughing house, she is always scamming ways to avoid being discharged from state-sponsored care (bye-bye gravy train). She seems perfectly happy to bide time at the hospital by day, and make a beeline to her lonely flat at nights and weekends to gobble meds and shut in with the telly. N’s comfortable routine hits a snag, however when her doctor “assigns” her to mentor a new day patient named Poppy (Naomie Harris).

Unlike the majority of patients in the ward, Poppy’s admittance for observation has been mandated by the state, based on answers she gave on a written personality profile she filled out as part of a job application (some Orwellian overtones there). She desperately implores N to use her knowledge of the system to help her prove to the doctors that she isn’t crazy. In a Catch-22 style twist, the financially tapped Poppy realizes that the only way she can afford the services of the attorney N has recommended to her is to become eligible for “mad money”. In other words, in order to prove that she isn’t crazy, she has to first get everyone to think that she is nuts.

This may sound like a comedy; while there are some amusing moments, I need to warn you that this is pretty bleak fare (on my way out of the screening, I asked an usher if he had a bit of rope handy). That being said, it is well written (Sarah Williams adapted from Clare Allan’s novel) and directed (by Benjamin Ross, who also helmed an excellent sleeper a few years back called The Young Poisoner’s Handbook). The jabs at England’s health care system reminded me a bit of Lindsay Anderson’s “institutional” satires (Britannia Hospital in particular). Harris is very affecting as Poppy, but it is Martin who commands your attention throughout. She has a Glenda Jackson quality about her that tells me she will likely be around for a while. She’s better than good. She’s crazy good.

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