“Why would he pick Topsy-Turvy,” the woman standing in front of me in line at the Castro Theatre asked with genuine puzzlement. Mike Leigh was being honored at the San Francisco International Film Festival last Wednesday, and it was safe to assume he would be reviving many of the same questions he was asked when the film, his selection to be shown at the evening’s event, first came out in 1999. Coming from the maker of High Hopes, Naked, and Secrets & Lies, a plush costume drama set in the 1880s and focusing on the genesis of a Gilbert & Sullivan comic operetta seemed like a perverse curveball. Where was the working-class British miserabilism? What would a “melancholic soul given to brooding silences,” as the filmmaker puckishly refers to the image cultivated of him by journalists, be doing with giggling little maids named Yum-Yum?
As it happened, I was able to ask Leigh that same question earlier that day, and he told me the film, uncharacteristic as it may appear in his oeuvre—“the cuckoo in the nest,” he fondly dubbed it—had the festive spirit the event called for. Incidentally, it is this seemingly uncharacteristic quality that makes Topsy-Turvy my own favorite of his films. The joy comes not so much from seeing the doyen of British grittiness getting away from his sober, modern London turf, but from seeing him use an unlikely period romp to bring to the fore and crystallize the sense of theatricality that runs throughout his work. No matter how many kitchen sinks his films sport, Leigh is no pea-soup realist: The way his acrid drifters and housing project-dwellers creatively orchestrate the ongoing performance that is life results in a heightened naturalism that is somewhere between Ken Loach’s harsh documentarian eye and Terence Davies’s full-bodied, poeticized subjectivity. To see single-mom Maureen (Ruth Sheen) challenge despair by singing “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” at the karaoke bar in All or Nothing is to understand how human beings can survive a drab world by transforming existence into hopeful art.
After a clip reel of his works (which included glimpses of his early films for BBC), Leigh took to the stage to receive the Founder’s Directing Award from San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Graham Leggat, and to be interviewed by critic David D’Arcy. He spoke of his early years in Salford, England before moving to London, where he recalled a live performance by the aging Laurel and Hardy in the early 1950s as a personal landmark (“They were dreadful. But I was fascinated.”) Coming of age in the 1960s, Leigh grew up watching American westerns and Britain’s Ealing comedies, and was particularly struck by François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Following his 1971 film debut Bleak Moments, there was a 17-year break from the big screen (filled with continuous work for the British stage and television) until the 1988 breakthrough of High Hopes. Difficulty finding funds accounted for the gap, Leigh explained, a situation that continues to frustrate him. Even now, after Oscar nominations, awards at Cannes and Venice, the Order of the British Empire, and the warm reception of his new film, Happy-Go-Lucky? “Hey, when I come in asking for money, I’m still the man who comes in without a screenplay and won’t discuss casting.”
Leigh’s famous working process received special attention throughout the Q&A session, particularly from the aspiring filmmakers in the audience. The director described his approach to acting as the opposite of Method acting, in which a performer stretches the character to his or her own persona. Rather, he said, he wants his actors to see their characters as beings to be created bit by bit until they become so autonomous that the camera could easily follow them around on a movie of their own. Hence the extended, improvised rehearsals—“journeys of discovery,” in the auteur’s words—during which the actor discovers the flesh in the character’s skeleton and the director, helping bring it to life, acts as both conductor and midwife. It’s a rigorous approach that scarcely helps Leigh’s relationship with producers, though he refuses to change the search for emotional truth in his films. Asked about the first and last things he always tells his students, the affably tranquil Leigh quietly roars: “Never compromise!”
The introductory interview ended with a word about Leigh’s dislike of most period movies, and how Topsy-Turvy was his attempt at subverting the “dusty” quality of the garden-variety costume drama. The film began, and the director’s words were made flesh: Investing his Victorian composers, impresarios, divas, and soubrettes with as much emotional urgency as working-class loners struggling to survive in post-Thatcher England, Leigh makes the characters more vibrant and present than in any Merchant-Ivory offering. The film is also, of course, a meta-spectacle, with Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sullivan’s (Allan Corduner) creation of their Orientalist opus The Mikado standing in for the creative process as surely and gloriously as the Moulin Rouge performance that climaxes Jean Renoir’s French Cancan. Grumbling about the clash between art and commerce and painstakingly helping performers through rehearsal, Broadbent’s Gilbert is unmistakably a surrogate for the director himself (and Broadbent has a close-up where we witness an idea invading and lighting up Gilbert’s face that’s arguably the actor’s most inspired 20 seconds), yet it’s Timothy Spall’s temperamental thespian, gazing at a backstage mirror with his make-up not quite off, who best summarizes Leigh’s sensitivity to human struggle and experience imagined as its own opera: “Laughter. Tears. Curtain.”
Fernando F. Croce is a critic for Slant Magazine and the creator of the website Cinepassion.