F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 1, 2015)

1 01 2015

Mike Leigh’s films are certainly not everyone’s cup of tea; I, myself, often find his movies rather impenetrable.  His scripts, with their precise and emphatic characterization, often feel like the most episodic instances of linear plots imaginable.  Leigh takes his sweet time in getting to his final destination, which can be maddening for those not on board.  The leisurely pace can often provide quite the opposite of leisure, as a matter of fact.

All these things are true of his 1999 film “Topsy-Turvy,” a historical biopic of British opera masters Gilbert and Sullivan set at the development of their great production, “The Mikado.”  The movie boasts all the hallmarks of a period piece – namely, extravagant attire and luscious set design – but little of the stuffiness or self-importance that usually accompanies them.  This is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” for the way it eschews that style of opulence-focused filmmaking in favor of its talented ensemble.  Leigh cares far more about what feelings lie underneath their wardrobe instead of the fabrics that adorn it.

Sorry to keep limiting the audience, but the film will carry far more meaning for those who have spent any time working on a theatrical production.  The stage draws a particular kind of personality and ego towards it, and “Topsy-Turvy” packs its cast full of these personages.  These are not just “Waiting for Guffman”-like archetypes, though. All the players feature a depth of character that makes them all the more recognizable as people, not just as figures.  Common sense would not dictate the logic behind granting so much screen time to those who execute Gilbert and Sullivan’s work, yet it somehow works.

The two titans of the operetta hardly go underdeveloped, however.  “Topsy-Turvy” offers plenty of insight into the working relationship of two talented artistic creators, showing how their professional collaboration turns sour after over a decade.  Sullivan (Allan Corduner) seeks to craft a breakthrough opus while Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) seems hardly phased by their relative creative stasis so long as it continues to pay the bills.  They almost dissolve their partnership over simple disagreement, not because of some extraordinary circumstance that usually tears musicians apart in cinematic renderings.

Ultimately, they pull it together and create something fresh and exciting with “The Mikado,” and Mike Leigh arguably achieves the same feat with “Topsy-Turvy.”  The film is funny as well as insightful, in sneaky ways that are not entirely apparent until it concludes.



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