As you may know, Leigh doesn't make movies the standard way, by writing or procuring a script and then hammering it into a shape that pleases him. He comes up with a story outline and a list of themes first. Then he casts the movie, and for the next several months he and the actors work out the characters, dialogue and structure. When the time comes to commit the drama to film, Leigh shapes it into a fixed screenplay. Leigh calls his process "growing a movie." It sounds slightly hippie-dippy and very Method?like therapy for actors, except the sessions are conducted in character and when they're over, everyone gets a souvenir transcript. Yet Leigh's films aren't unfocused and rambling, like the films of P.T. Anderson, who sometimes turns the camera on actors, feeds them suggestions, films their improvisations and calls it a scene. Leigh's movies, which include High Hopes and Secrets & Lies, showcase simmering unhappiness and bursts of wit and fury, but they're not sloppy. They're exact and ritualized, full of emotional misdirection and sly feints. In other words, they're very British?and I mean that in the most complimentary way. Topsy-Turvy, a huge, rich musical biography about W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) during their collaboration on The Mikado, is Leigh's most British movie yet. Leigh "grew" like his projects, but the results are even more impressive than usual because the scenes were improvised and worked out within the bounds of period accuracy. What a challenge this must have been for the cast. What Leigh has done is the equivalent of assembling a brilliant free-jazz ensemble to record an album, then telling the musicians they can't employ any melodies, styles or riffs that predate, say, the Dixieland era.
Topsy-Turvy's dialogue and manners are from 1884, not 1999. Yet the movie doesn't seem frozen in the amber of tastefulness, like a bad Merchant-Ivory film. Instead, like Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Kansas City, it's fluid and rude, funny and natural. It's about musicians and actors putting on a show, but Leigh and his cast don't put on a show for moviegoers. Rather, the characters go about their business and Leigh lets us watch from the wings. A comedy with melancholy undertones, Topsy-Turvy has too many characters, too many scenes and, at 161 minutes, it's probably too long. Yet I didn't stir as it unfolded and, looking back, I can't think of anything I'd cut. Like Secrets & Lies, it's at once intimate and monumental, and not every scene fits into Leigh's apparent plan with geometric precision, but the bits that stick out are pleasurable anyway?sometimes thrilling. Maybe they're pleasurable and thrilling because they don't fit?because Leigh is showing you things most filmmakers wouldn't think to show. The scene in Secrets & Lies where Timothy Spall's character, a portrait photographer, has an uncomfortable meeting with his alcoholic ex-partner didn't fit. Of all the scenes in that 142-minute movie, it's probably the most expendable. Yet it's my favorite scene, because it captures sensations I haven't seen on film before?the agony of trying to be nice to a drunken jerk who blames his troubles on the world; the greater agony of being a drunk asking a sober person for help.
Topsy-Turvy starts in 1884, when Gilbert and Sullivan endured a critical and box-office disappointment with their latest comic opera, Princess Ida. The ostensible reason for its failure is a heat wave that swept London, making it impossible for heavily dressed theater patrons to enjoy themselves; but the real reason is that Ida wasn't that good, and certainly not fresh. Sullivan, a kindly but hard-partying proto-bohemian, heads to France with his American mistress (Eleanor David), supposedly to recuperate from kidney trouble but actually to get soused and cavort with prostitutes. Back in London, Gilbert frets over his next creative move.
After that, the story is a familiar one of inspiration unearthed and talent rediscovered. Sullivan, the composing part of the team, wants to move in a different creative direction, perhaps even concentrate on his own long-delayed "serious" opera. He rejects Gilbert's newest libretto for being too much like their earlier work. The duo squabble and threaten to break up. But then a traveling exhibition of Japanese culture stops in town, and Gilbert's wife convinces him to go. Gilbert becomes obsessed with Japan and draws Sullivan into his obsession. After weeks of writing and weeks more of rehearsal, the result is The Mikado?an opera that, in retrospect, is only superficially Japanese and wholly Gilbert and Sullivan, yet so different from other things being done at the time that it might as well have been the product of space aliens. I wonder if Leigh feels a kinship with Gilbert and Sullivan at this stage in their careers. Leigh's last movie was 1997's Career Girls, which many critics thought was a substandard repetition of themes and styles he'd done before. Gilbert and Sullivan rejuvenated their reputations by reaching halfway around the world, to Japan. Leigh scales new heights of ambition by reaching back into England's artistic past.
Despite the setting and period strictures, Topsy-Turvy is clearly a Leigh film. The filmmaker pursues his usual strategy of unveiling the characters in inches. The best example is Gilbert, played by Broadbent as the very model of harrumphing British stoicism. The character's bluster, stubbornness and emotional constipation are hilarious. But he's not a pill. Topsy-Turvy makes him seem like a smart, fun man to be around, even if you're an actor and he's breaking your chops. Gilbert acts the hardcase, and he is a hardcase, but he tickles himself. His refusal to admit being amused by anything amuses him. His sense of humor is so dry that it slips right past most of the other characters; they're so busy laboring to please him that they don't realize they're serving as straight men in jokes Gilbert instigated?private jokes only he is aware of. One of the highlights of Topsy-Turvy is a very long sequence of Gilbert directing several singers during rehearsal. One character delivers a line in a distracting cadence and accent. Gilbert barks, "Again, please?this time in English!" When an actor tries out a fussy bit of stage business and defends it by saying, "It amuses me," Gilbert smiles faintly, then booms, "Yes, but does it amuse me?" That's what it's all about, really?pleasing the creator, or at the very least the boss (and yourself along the way). While the performers are trying to please Gilbert, he's riffing off them in ways they don't catch because they're focused on the work. This scene indicates the quickness and dexterity of Gilbert's mind. He's inside the moment and outside looking at it. Anyone who has ever tried to direct a play, or lead a project of any kind, will empathize with Gilbert's inside-outskie mindset. Anybody who has ever performed in a play or played music will appreciate Topsy-Turvy. The movie gets everything right: the repetitious hard work of rehearsals, the corny futzing around, the director's micromanaging specificity, the backstage bitching and sniping and sexual tension, the inevitable decision of actors to rally around a particular cause (in this case, a mistreated performer).
But back to Leigh's game of inches: There is more to Gilbert than gruff perfectionism and subtle mockery. He's a lonely individual?as lonely in his own way as Jim Carrey's Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. He's lonely because he's surrounded by friends and collaborators who adore him (and a wife, played by Lesley Manville, who loves and respects him), yet he lacks the necessary emotional equipment to connect with them. He almost connects with them?shows his love for them?in a roundabout way, by impressing them with his talent, then cajoling and manipulating them into doing great things. But when he's not in his fiefdom, the theater, he's stiff and closed off?too English by half. His marriage, otherwise healthy, is damaged by a failure to produce children, and Gilbert is incapable of talking about this; he's a father to theatrical productions, not flesh-and-blood kids.
Leigh's maturity and control as a filmmaker is evidenced by his refusal to milk this situation for cheap pathos, or to treat it as some kind of surprise. When he does delve into it, deep in the movie, it seems a logical extension of details that were planted before in other scenes, other contexts. Leigh grows characters along with stories; the characters flower slowly rather than suddenly. Because you don't know what small surprise awaits you just around the next bend, an aura of mystery permeates every scene in Leigh's films. This aura inspires a pleasant anxiety on the part of the viewer, who senses that things are being withheld, and is willing to hang tight until the masks come off. When the masks do come off, we don't get reductionist high school revelations like in Magnolia ("I can't love women because my father slept around"; "The reason I'm such a jerk is because I did something evil many years ago, and now that I've told you what it is, let's end the movie"). Rather, what we see when the mask is lifted is a clearer picture of the person we already sensed through the eyeholes. Think of the final 45 minutes of Secrets & Lies, where Brenda Blethyn's seemingly hapless dithering was revealed as a supple passive-aggressive defense mechanism. Think also of the despair and coiled anger of Spall's character, a seeming rock of sanity who spent years absorbing chaos to protect the family, then finally let his loved ones see the fissures in his heart. Leigh's films are not about phony surprise; they're about deferred moments of clarity.
Other characters flower as well, showing you new sides that you should have known they had. At first, Sullivan seems a much happier, more agreeable, more communicative fellow than Gilbert, but Leigh only seems to be setting them up as theatrical good cop and bad cop. When we get to see Sullivan rehearsing his musicians, we realize he's every bit as exacting a taskmaster as Gilbert; but he's warmer and less confrontational in his humor, so his notes don't seem as aggressive and controlling. Timothy Spall's comic baritone, a popular star in the theater company, approaches each moment with a relaxed confidence, almost a sense of entitlement, but when faced with the prospect of having his big number cut, he crumbles like a green kid in summer stock. Everything Leigh and his actors do seems to fit. Topsy-Turvy is about what it seems to be about?Gilbert and Sullivan, their milieu and their work. But in a grander sense, it's about the mysteries of the creative process, and how those mysteries can only be unlocked through hard work. It's a valentine to actors and musicians?to creative people in general. It understands them, which is much more flattering and thrilling to creative people than a film that merely romanticizes them. Topsy-Turvy isn't simplistic and condescending like Tim Robbins' smug 1930s theatrical drama Cradle Will Rock, which says, in effect, "Good for you, little person, if you're in the theater! What an interesting life it is! And what amusing fodder it affords me, the filmmaker!" Robbins comes at the subject like an interloper, an historical tourist. Leigh, a former actor who is rightly beloved by actors, belongs here. His talent is real and timeless.
Angela's Ashes directed by Alan Parker Could a film adaptation of Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt's memoir of growing up smart, poor and desperate in the slums of Limerick, ever have equaled the book? Or is that too much to ask?
It's probably too much to ask. So much of the book's power came from its voice, which is something you can't replicate onscreen. You can approximate it with music and photography and production design. But you can't replicate it, because film is film and prose is prose and the two don't work the same way.
Consider the function of voiceover narration. In writer-director Alan Parker's good-but-never-great film version of Angela's Ashes, it's used liberally, partly to move the story along and partly to pay tribute to McCourt's raw, funny, jewel-hard prose. That prose should be honored in some form; it propelled the book to bestseller status and is the reason this movie was made. But Parker and his co-scenarist, Laura Jones, make two key mistakes. First, they recast McCourt's present-tense narration in past tense. Second, they hire a middle-aged Irish actor to deliver the narration, when in the book it's clearly the product of little Frankie, who's narrating his own life as it happens.
These two directorial choices combine to distance us from the same rich, excitingly detailed story McCourt's book plopped us right in the middle of. Suddenly 1930s Limerick doesn't feel near anymore. Despite Parker's superb detail work?cracked cobblestones, pounding rain, leaky roofs, foraging rats, squalling babies?you don't feel a sense of immediacy.
On the surface, Parker would seem to be a good director for this subject. His 1991 adaptation of Irish novelist Roddy Doyle's The Commitments is his lightest, sweetest, least affected film. Jim Sheridan might have done just as well or better; the first act of his 1988 triumph My Left Foot, which was set in the slums of Dublin, had a scabrous, thrilling, McCourt-like sense of humor. But Parker's a fine choice; he's smart and ambitious and has the added virtue of not caring whether his films offend prudes or bore teenagers. When he's not trying to be political and important, he can make films that are exquisitely designed, funny and moving?not an easy combination. There's no reason to think he couldn't find a way to do McCourt justice.
But he doesn't; not quite. At first, the casting seems to be the problem. Emily Watson is pretty and resilient as little Frankie's suffering ma, Angela, but in hindsight her performance seems vague and unfocused, as if she never figured out how to play a martyr and a flesh-and-blood woman at the same time. Robert Carlyle seems to be the right actor for Frankie's yarn-spinning, dole-guzzling da, Malachy; he was a brute in Trainspotting and a charming flake in The Full Monty, and this role calls for elements of both. Yet Carlyle, like Watson, seems to be not quite getting it; Malachy comes into hard, realistic focus one moment and dissipates into Irish sob-story cliche the next. And when he vanishes from the movie, which is often, we don't get a clear sense of what the family is missing (or gaining). He doesn't seem a wonderful enough person to deserve so many second chances.
But in fairness to these fine actors, they're being asked to gather together broken shards of literary characters and fuse them into a believable whole, and Parker's storytelling strategy deprives them of the necessary glue: McCourt's voice, his style, his spirit. Yes, that voice, style and spirit flame to life now and again, in Parker's broad-brush-stroke images?the still white face of an asphyxiated infant, a floor full of rainwater as deep as the Thames, a fat bastard landlord who gives Angela a sex-based rent discount while making Frankie empty his chamber pots. These images, captured by Parker's favorite cinematographer, Michael Seresin, are striking. But they don't coalesce, they don't feed a common vision, or even feed one another.
That Frankie is played by three different young actors is a problem as well. Just when you get used to one kid, he's replaced by another who doesn't look a whole hell of a lot like the one who came before. It's disorienting.
McCourt's voice is the straw that binds together each individual narrative brick in his story; with these strong bricks, McCourt builds a shrine to his own melancholy memories. Without some equivalent of McCourt's prose, the film version of Angela's Ashes doesn't move us. It's interesting but not riveting, funny but not hysterical, disturbing but not meaningful. There is some value, I suppose, in a big-budget Hollywood movie that shows American audiences what real poverty looks like. But Angela's Ashes has little value beyond that. It plays like a bittersweet story that happened long ago to someone else. It should be happening right now, to us.
Framed It's been a good season for movies. But it's been a terrible year for moviegoers who read criticism for insight, not plot summary. So many prominent reviewers are giving away major plot points of films that have barely had a chance to be seen by regular audiences. In a recent article on Julianne Moore in Time, Richard Schickel told us the entire story of The End of the Affair from start to finish, complete with the crucial midpoint revelation that changes the whole thrust of the tale. In The New Yorker a few weeks back, Anthony Lane dissed The Cider House Rules in a few fat paragraphs, yet still managed to summarize the complete arc of hero Homer Wells' odyssey, ending with the disclosure of a major surprise. (Armond White did the same thing in his column last week, but he had somewhat of an excuse: he was talking about the demeaning nature of roles for black actors, and you can't do that without being specific.) I've read The Green Mile reviews that tell you who lives, who dies and whether the convicted killer John Coffey is innocent or guilty. Most of the reviews I've read of Magnolia give away the resolution of several plotlines?including the genuinely surreal finale and a key bit of information that ties together two characters who seem unconnected until the 90-minute mark.
My objections have nothing to do with the quality of the movies in question. The End of the Affair is a great movie; The Cider House Rules is handsome and likable but inert, The Green Mile blunt and simplistic but very effective; Magnolia is an ambitious but painfully misguided botch-job. But all these movies deserve to have significant plot twists protected?it's part of the unspoken three-way pact between critics, filmmakers and audiences.
That so many critics ignore this pact indicates that insularity and laziness are eating away at the profession. Reviewers see these movies weeks before they open, so they wrongly feel as if they've been out there in the culture for longer than they have, and are thus fair game for spoilage. Often, if the film is based on a well-known novel, the critic wrongly assumes that everyone reading the piece is familiar with the source material. (Or maybe it's arrogance: These yobs should read more, and since they don't, screw 'em.) I can understand presuming mass public knowledge of Angela's Ashes, but The End of the Affair?
A quick reality check would prevent critics from making such errors in judgment. But most critics don't live in reality; they don't go to see movies in regular theaters with paying customers, and they don't have much contact with the regular moviegoing public (the close friends and relatives of critics don't count). So they write as if everyone reading them is a fellow critic?someone who goes to all the free screenings, sees everything and reads everything (or has time to read and see everything). It is possible to write thorough, smart criticism without spoiling plot twists, but that requires patience and thought, and most critics are lazy this time of year. So much to see, so many pieces to file, so little time for second thoughts, so screw 'em.
No wonder so many moviegoers hate critics. Even the smart critics treat the public with contempt?that is, when they think about the public at all.
The Best Films of 1999 All About My Mother (Almodovar, Spain/France) Any Given Sunday (Oliver Stone, USA) Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, USA) Boys Don't Cry (Kimberly Peirce, USA) Children of Heaven (Majid Majidi, Iran) Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, USA) Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan) The Matrix (The Wachowski Bros., USA) The Straight Story (David Lynch, USA/France) Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh, UK) Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter, USA) South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (Trey Parker, USA) Xiu-Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl (Joan Chen, USA-China-Taiwan)
Honorable mentions After Life (Hirokazu Koreeda, Japan); Bringing Out the Dead (Martin Scorsese, USA); Cookie's Fortune (Robert Altman, USA); Election (Alexander Payne, USA); Fight Club (David Fincher, USA); The Iron Giant (Brad Bird, USA); The Insider (Michael Mann, USA); Let it Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles (Jennifer Baichwal, Canada); Mr. Death (Errol Morris, USA); Pups (Ash, USA); The Red Violin (François Girard, Canada/Italy); the action sequences in The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, USA); Denzel Washington's performance in The Hurricane (Norman Jewison, USA); Chow Yun-Fat in Anna and the King (Andy Tennant, USA); any scene with Michael Caine in The Cider House Rules (Lasse Hallstrom, USA); Heather Graham's love-scene audition in Bowfinger (Frank Oz, USA), after which Steve Martin says, "Very good. Player, let's try it again, this time without the erection."