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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Mike Leigh | Topsy-Turvy


the opposite of seeming
by Douglas Messerli
 
Mike Leigh (writer and director) Topsy-Turvy / 1999

It’s hard to even think of Mike Leigh’s thoroughly enjoyable film, Topsy-Turvy, as a biopic, even though the work centers itself on two historical figures, writer and librettist W. S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner). As with too few biopics, Leigh’s film is clearly well-researched and historically accurate, incorporating into its structure various aspects and concerns of the Victorian culture which helped to create the famous duo’s major operetta, The Mikado.

      If anything, Topsy-Turvy suffers in its attempt to stuff as many of these topical references into his work as possible, forcing his characters, at times, to participate in unlikely conversations of political issues such as the collapse of the British garrison at Khartoum, the development of the telephone (a special line connects Gilbert directly to producer D’Oyly Carte’s [Ron Cook] office), the oddity of electricity (the Savoy Theatre features electric lights, a rarity at the time), and revealing various cases of drug abuse and sexual improprieties: Sullivan’s mistress Fanny Ronalds’ (Eleanor David) avocation of women’s use of nicotine and easy embracement of an abortion; actor George Grossmith’s (Martin Savage) morphine addiction; lead soprano Leonora Braham’s (Shirley Henderson) alcoholism, possible lesbianism, and nightly sexual encounters; Sullivan’s visitation to a French brothel; and Gilbert’s apparent emotional and sexual frigidity. In Leigh’s view—and likely in reality—life upon the Victorian stage was truly wicked.

      But what most separates this work from its more typical genre types is the director’s ability to work with an ensemble cast. Accordingly, while we certainly do get to know the home lives, working difficulties, and personal frustrations of its central characters, we understand them more fully in the context of an entire world of professionals—professionals both within the movie and outside it. It’s sometimes the most mundane of scenes that reveal the depth of these characters, who are so well acted that the viewer is easily sucked into the cinematic world in which they are presented. I could spend hours just listening over and over to the gentle remonstrations of Helen Lenoir (Wendy Nottingham) and D’Oyly Carte (always, as Gilbert reminds, a man as smooth as calm waters) as they attempt to negotiate an agreement for Gilbert and Sullivan to again collaborate with one another. That it is unsuccessful, after their gentle and tender ministrations, makes the pair’s refusal to work together all the more shocking.

      Similarly, contract negotiations between D’Oyly Carte and his actors, even ignoring the comic interruptions of the self-assured Rutland Barrington (Vincent Franklin) and Grossmith—who have consumed tainted oysters before their interviews—reveal more about the characters than any contrived plot actions might. And, as the characters begin their long series of rehearsals, costume fittings, and etiquette lessons about Japanese culture, we become so intimately acquainted with the talents, quirks, and frustrations of each figure that we begin to feel we personally know them, helping us to be thoroughly engaged with their superlative—and their performances are quite wondrous—stage actions. Just like everyone else in the cast, we are crushed when Gilbert suddenly cuts Pooh-Bah’s great solo, “A More Humane Mikado,” and we almost wish we could joy the cast members behind the screen to protest in favor of its restoration.

      So fully do we begin to fill in the lives of the large Mikado cast, that we often lose sight of the central players, Gilbert and Sullivan. We perceive how Gilbert accidently became fascinated with Japanese culture through his attendance of the Japanese exhibition of arts and crafts in Knightsbridge, but we are kept somewhat in the dark as to how that was transformed into such a sprightly comically cockamamie world. Indeed, given his dour and dark view of the universe, his inability to socially engage, how did Gilbert manage to create all of those topsy-turvy plots and, most importantly, such engagingly comic rhymes?

     His opposite, Sullivan, a man too thoroughly engaged with women, wine, and song, often seems, on the other hand, a bourgeois bore at home who might rather have spent his life composing the kind of second-rate parlour songs and symphonies that so many Victorians took to heart, rather than creating the delightful ditties for which he is now famous. While Leigh is absolutely splendid in recreating the world spinning around these artistic geniuses, we find it difficult, somehow, to understand how they came to produce their art.

      No matter, I suppose, since that art is so splendidly realized in this picture. Perhaps we must look to the two women in each of central figures’ lives, the vivacious and sexually advanced Fanny, in Sullivan’s case, and the sexually frustrated yet adoring and supporting “Kitty” (Lesley Manville) in Gilbert’s house. The last scenes of Leigh’s film are given over to a fascinating suggestion for a future opera scenario, based on “Kitty’s” dreams, obviously infused with Freudian imagery that reveals her desire for a child or even an occasional sexual engagement. An entire stage overridden with nannies pushing perambulators might have represented a breakthrough of enormous importance, an escape from the silly magic rings and talismans far more reaching in their surrealist possibilities than even Gilbert and Sullivan’s witty and joyful concoction, The Mikado. As the highly poised and self-contained Helen has quipped earlier in the film: “The more I see of men, the more I admire dogs.”

      Perhaps Leigh’s film does not quite feel like a biopic because he realizes and demonstrates that things are often the opposite of what they seem, that the world, in short is “topsy-turvy”: those who are at the center are never quite as interesting as those who faithfully proffer their love and support.

Los Angeles, November 6, 2012

1 comment:

  1. ["If anything, Topsy-Turvy suffers in its attempt to stuff as many of these topical references into his work as possible, forcing his characters, at times, to participate in unlikely conversations of political issues such as the collapse of the British garrison at Khartoum, the development of the telephone (a special line connects Gilbert directly to producer D’Oyly Carte’s [Ron Cook] office), the oddity of electricity (the Savoy Theatre features electric lights, a rarity at the time), and revealing various cases of drug abuse and sexual improprieties: Sullivan’s mistress Fanny Ronalds’ (Eleanor David) avocation of women’s use of nicotine and easy embracement of an abortion; actor George Grossmith’s (Martin Savage) morphine addiction; lead soprano Leonora Braham’s (Shirley Henderson) alcoholism, possible lesbianism, and nightly sexual encounters; Sullivan’s visitation to a French brothel; and Gilbert’s apparent emotional and sexual frigidity. In Leigh’s view—and likely in reality—life upon the Victorian stage was truly wicked."]


    These are some of the moments that made the film for me.

    ReplyDelete