The only time I’ve ever been a regular patron of live theater was the year I spent living in England (mostly London), where I saw at least two or three shows a month—everything from gigantic celebrity-studded West End plays and musicals to The Tempest at the Globe and H.M.S. Pinafore outdoors in Hyde Park, with many more modest plays in between. And while I never came to love theater more than movies (even in performance films, I’m always more focused on cinematography than anything else—plus I love popcorn), my favorite aspect of the whole experience was the lobby conversation afterward. Movies, I learned that year as well, are a great solitary activity, but a good stage performance begs to be discussed, immediately and passionately. The murmur of a post-performance theater lobby is filled with discussions of human behavior and action; perhaps because the audience actually witness other humans undergo a physical experience before our very eyes, we feel the need to dissect its implications more so than after seeing people magically recreated by tricks of light and shadow.
When Another Year finally reached Washington, D.C. a month or so ago (playing only at one theater in the Maryland suburbs), I went the opening weekend and was pleased to find the place nearly packed. And while the film itself was brilliant (a fascinating other-side-of-the-coin to Mike Leigh’s equally masterful Happy-Go-Lucky), I enjoyed it all the more for the lobby talk it engendered. People left with their friends, arguing over characters’ motivations and comparing their own reactions to different on-screen decisions and scenes. They discussed the movie as people typically discuss theater, in other words, and for largely the same reason. Leigh’s technical mastery is the most underappreciated aspect of his art, usually relegated to a footnote in favor of critical focus on his unique collaborative writing methods. But he’s reached a point where his camera and his keyboard are both equal, sympathetic partners in his unparalleled depiction of interior emotion and group dynamics. Through Leigh’s long takes, static shots, and exposition-free dialogue, his characters feel real, as if they’re merely going about their lives in front of us.
Interesting, then, that Topsy-Turvy, his longest film and the only one where characters consciously perform on a stage, is one of his most oblique. Leigh, a frequent theatrical director himself, is clearly thrilled with the opportunity to convey the collaborative artistic process on film (“I’m not given to making films about filmmakers or artists,” he’s quoted in Amy Taubin’s accompanying essay, “But I decided that it would be good to make a film about what we do, what we all go through”), but the broader canvas doesn’t always play to his strengths. Of course, the results are much more than simply “good”; Topsy-Turvy might be the greatest collaboration between Leigh and his frequent cinematographer Dick Pope, and it’s a marvelous chance to see the director’s incredible attention to design detail applied to a 19th-century setting. It may also be the most purely fun movie he’s made, and his most richly scripted dialogue. But it’s relatively light on interpersonal conflict, which is Leigh’s bread and butter. In the final 10 minutes, a number of emotional climaxes arrive that, in another Leigh film like Secrets & Lies or Grown-Ups, might inspire a collective emotional meltdown between the characters. But here, these problems simply arrive, casting the previous two and a half hours in a more bittersweet light, but they’re never fully developed.
I’m nitpicking, since Topsy-Turvy is so rich, visually and emotionally, that the sudden appearance of discrete climaxes is almost disorienting; unlike Leigh’s other finely tuned dramas, this one could conceivably roll on for hours. It’s also entirely possible that I’ll like this film more after watching it multiple times, when the subtleties of its wandering narrative are more visible. The meat of the movie is certainly the depiction of Gilbert and Sullivan (Jim Broadbent and Allen Corduner) as they defy a collaborative block and write The Mikado, their most enduring operetta, but other characters emerge from the margins, commanding their own chunk of the script and the movie’s many staged performance scenes. Among these are Gilbert’s wife Lucy (Lesley Manville, as prim and accommodating here as she is exhausting and deluded in Another Year) and Sullivan’s mistress Fanny Ronnalds (Eleanor David, not given enough to do). These two women, and the protagonists’ relationships with them, establish the central dichotomy between the two artists: Gilbert, the buttoned-up, terse survivor of an absolutely disastrous family (seen in two grimly suggestive scenes), never so much as touches his fawning wife, whereas Sullivan, a gifted musician whose “serious” artistic ambition was perhaps thwarted by his apparently equal love for morphine and Parisian brothels, can barely keep his hands off Fanny, who also accompanies him musically.
The Mikado came out of a creative impasse between the men, and though we see them working and discussing their next move (in one of Leigh’s characteristic two-shot long takes), their relationship is primarily established through their working interactions: Gilbert comes up with the story, writes his libretto, and reads it aloud, beginning to end, in Sullivan’s parlor. They rarely discuss anything more personal than the most superficial pleasantries, and once production itself begins they seem hardly to converse at all. As in all Leigh’s films, we encounter the lead relationship in media res, and are made to acknowledge that their partnership extends well beyond what we see in the film.
The drama, literal and otherwise, swirling around them includes too many characters to count, though particular attention is paid to Timothy Spall and Kevin McKidd, playing the company’s only Italian-trained opera singers and its resident divas; Martin Savage as George Grossmith, a lead performer with a secret drug addiction; and Shirley Henderson as Leonora Braham, an widowed alcoholic soprano who manages the film’s greatest single musical performance, “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze.”
After making this film, Leigh reverted back to kitchen-sink contemporary melodrama with All or Nothing, to my mind the least successful of his films. But the making of Topsy-Turvy seems to have affected all his movies since, which are generally more lyrical, in both pacing and cinematography, than even his best ‘90s work, like Naked and Secrets & Lies. If Topsy-Turvy stands out among his work, it’s because the broader canvas avoids the surgical detail to characters’ growth over time that he’s best known for. The trade off is that it’s his most thoroughly imagined world, one of the few Leigh movies that I wanted to go on forever.
Topsy-Turvy isn't an old movie, nor was it a terribly popular one, so I doubt there was too much work to be done in terms of cleaning up the image. Nevertheless, this package looks wonderful, particularly the onstage sequences, which are the closest to Powell and Pressburger lushness that Mike Leigh has ever come. The music, as one would also expect, sounds great; the relatively small orchestra is full-sounding and resonant, though the focus—both aurally and visually—is always on the faces of the sprawling cast.
A 1999 commentary by Leigh, a newly recorded—and quite interesting—40-minute conversation between Leigh and musical director Gary Yershon, the requisite deleted scenes and TV spots, a 1999 promotional featurette, and a well-written essay by critic Amy Taubin. But the grail here is a half-hour short film from 1992, A Sense of History, which has been an object of fascination among Leigh fans for years. It remains the only time Leigh has directed someone else's script, in this case one by Jim Broadbent, who also plays the lead in this mockumentary monologue. He's a stuffy upper-class English eccentric who leads the camera crew on a tour of his family's massive estate, giving an alarmingly open autobiography in the process. Shot by Dick Pope, it's beautiful looking and features an extraordinary script by Broadbent; left on the page, the words would make a caustic and terrifying short story. A Sense of History is available in three parts on YouTube, but it's wonderful to see it given a proper release after nearly two decades.
Mike Leigh jettisons his usual pinpoint focus in favor of a broad, inclusive narrative, resulting in his most purely enjoyable movie and some of his greatest technical achievements.