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Feb 20 2018

Mike Leigh at 75: On Wallpaper,Topsyturvydom and Empire

"THE FURNITURE,"byDaniel Walber,is devoted to Mike Leigh this week for his 75th birthday.(Click on the images to see them in magnified detail.)

Topsy-Turvyis a subtle,even deceptive film.It moves like a light-hearted showbiz comedy,almost a VictorianWaiting for Guffman.Yet there's much more going on.Why is it so long,for example?What is Mike Leigh trying to express with so many characters?Why "The Mikado"?

These are questions that can be answered by paying close attention to its production design,the Oscar-nominated work of Eve Stewart and Helen Scott.This is a film about London at the peak of the British Empire,a metropolis gobbling up the riches and the bric-a-brac of the entire world.And the chosen entertainment of its people,eager to take in the sights and sounds of their imperial fantasies,were the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

The first to appear inTopsy-Turvyis "Princess Ida",a fantastical lampoon of Victorian mores that took place in a sort-of Pre-Raphaelite,Medieval court.

The version presented here involves a stage flanked by a traffic jam of trees,vine-covered Classical architecture and a great many helmets and snoods...

This is Leigh's reading of Gilbert and Sullivan's 'topsyturvydom.' The operettas are not always set in foreign lands,but they always create an excess of setting.Princess Ida and Iolanthe are pre-modern fairytales,"H.M.S.Pinafore"and "The Pirates of Penzance" rollick on the high seas with the Royal Navy.Yet just beneath the surface of each forest of painted cardboard is a comic parody of London society.

Leigh follows this glut of visual pleasure off the stage and into the private lives of his characters.

The bedroom of Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) sports perhaps the most extravagant wallpaper in the film.Its lush,detailed pattern of green vegetation and orientalist architectural forms matches the bedspread and the little glass lamp that hangs above Sullivan's pillow.

The living spaces of W.S.Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) are dominated by an overabundance of carved wood.Dark green curtains and wallpaper frame an enormous wood fireplace,heavy furniture and carved wall hangings.

Gilbert's dining room,meanwhile,pairs its lighter mouldings with a truly astonishing assortment of blue and white pottery.It's hard to tell at this distance whether or not it's all Chinese,but it seems likely given the themes of the film.

Gilbert's vivacious collecting leads him to the inspiration for his next work,a libretto that will change Sullivan's mind and bring him right back to musical comedy.He brings a samurai sword home from an exhibition of Japanese culture,to be immediately hung on the wall.Here is a new cultural landscape to be sent through the machine of topsyturvydom.It drops to the floor,not a bad omen but an emphatic gesture from Leigh.

Thus"The Mikado".ButTopsy-Turvyisn't just a film about the relationship between Gilbert,Sullivan and their own orientalist interior decorating.If it were,it would likely run about 95 minutes.Rather,this is also a movie about why "The Mikado"was such a hit.It portrays an entire social world.D'Oyly Carte's office has similar inflections.Every restaurant is an equally elaborate mélange of Eastern design.

InTopsy-Turvy's London,one writes to the light of chinoiserie lamps and slurps oysters in the presence of painted peacocks.It's worth noting that the only intrusion of international reality comes in one of these restaurant scenes."The Mikado"s leading men dive into their shellfish while expressing rage at the defeat and death of Major-General Charles George Gordon at the Mahdist Siege of Khartoum.

Leigh even gives this event an intertitle,in a film with no similar updates.At first,it seems entirely out of place.But it's a reminder of the far flung consequences of an entire system,a gluttonous capital and its vices."The Mikado" was a hit on its merits and its context,the perfect operetta for a city that filled its townhouses and its theaters with the trinkets of empire.

Gilbert's obsession with Japanese authenticity is part and parcel of this world.The costumes and sets are as Japanese as possible,with some similar attempts at window-dressing in the score.The plot,the melodies and the actors,on the other hand,are quite thoroughly English.But that's the entire point.It's the visual impression that matters,the indulgent sincerity of imperial excess.That's topsyturvydom.

previous installments of The Furniture
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Reader Comments (8)

There are so many Mike Leigh movies that I think of as My Favorite Mike Leigh Movie - and Topsy-Turvy is one of them.It's one of the few long movies that I think benefit from their length,partly because it's all so much fun.

This is a great read!

February 20,2018 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Funny 'cos it's one of Leigh's I really dislike.

February 20,2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I love this movie- one of the best films ever mad about the creative process

February 20,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Wow,these images are wonderful.I've never gotten around to seeing this one.I've always considered it optional for a Mike Leigh film.Question for other readers: How much do I need to see it,on a scale of 1-10?

February 20,2018 | Unregistered CommenterCash

I love love love this film!Although I like the Mike Leigh that createdVera Drake,Secrets & Lies,Life is SweetandAnother Year,I love the excess and extravaganza of this whole enterprise.Plus that scene where Shirley Henderson sang "The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze"is one very beautiful scene/performance.

February 20,2018 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

Fantastic movie!Respectful about its subjects but with a lot of sense of humor!This with Bridget Jones,Moulin Rouge and Iris made me a die-hard fan of Jim Broadbent that,with his charisma,makes his Gilbert a more interesting part of the duo.The only film of our days - (all unnecessarily too long in my opinion) that I would like to give more ten or twenty minutes - dedicated to their time with family.

February 21,2018 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

Cash -- 9!It's marvelous (if way too long) but Jim Broadbent totally should have been nominated for Best Actor and Lesley Manville is GREAT as his wife.Plus it earned its Oscar wins.

February 21,2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Great post.I love how the production design helps tell the story!Topsy Turvy is fascinating — at the time,a Mike Leigh period piece seemed like an oxymoron (this was 15 years before Mr.Turner!).It starts slow but rewards patience,because the story keeps spreading out wider and wider bringing in more of the subplots of the actors and other people in the company,each of them with something at stake in this production.Lesley Manville and Jim Broadbent are wonderful,but there's a great supporting performance by Shirley Henderson -- Moaning Myrtle herself!

Trivia: Francis Lee,who went on to direct God's Own Country using methods he learned from Mike Leigh,was an actor in this film -- does anyone know which part he played?

February 23,2018 | Unregistered CommenterHustler

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