Noted People

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Film Review by Dean Duncan Apr 10, 2015

Personally, I like to find reasons for things, and give the benefit of the doubt. There usually are, and it’s usually deserved. But there’s a small problem with this really fine film, and it has bigger implications, at least for a lot of the audiences that I’m acquainted with around here.

That little brothel sequence is so unfortunate! Yes, in it we learn that Mr. Sullivan was a sensualist. We wonder if maybe this is a sign of his creative funk, or what churning ‘em out can reduce you to. We go on to learn that Sullivan wrote The Lost Chord (and Onward, Christian Soldiers), and that he aspired to Grand Opera. We understand that there’s an important disconnect here, a confounding inconsistency that needs to be accounted for. But director M. Leigh—who isn’t usually given to cheap ironies, and who finally, even profoundly loves this character—doesn’t really resolve or make use of the sequence. (A later bit about abortion is much more productive, consistent with the mournful distinction Leigh makes between the sweet raptures of theatrical collectivism and fantasy, and the lonely, diminishing, substance-dependent reality of so many of these people’s lives.) But think how many bright eyed youngsters might have been stirred and inspired by this, now justifiably R-rated thing.

Some of you will find this to be an exceeding trivial objection, or contemptible, or even book-burningly censorious. But it’s important to a lot of nice people that I know, around where I live. It’s important to me too, or to my understanding of what I share with, show to, experience with my kids. So your disagreement is good. Your scorn isn’t.

Back to the movie. It’s a pity, that brothel sequence, because everything else in Topsy-Turvy is amazing. It provides a service of which film fans are in desperate need, though a great many of them don’t know it. It demonstrates the grandness and glory of theatre. It is so good on theatrical process, so good on all the constituent sub-processes that make up this wonderful institution. It’s so good on creation—including creative funks—translation, execution. It’s so good on the culture and the subcultures, the hierarchy, the financing, the fantasy. It’s very respectful toward potentially musty Victorian properties, at the same time that it’s fairly critical about musty Victorian sensibilities. For instance, lots of fun is had with the word “one.”

For all of its satirical barbs, though, Topsy-Turvey is finally fair-minded, historically speaking. Things are of their times, and we can’t fairly criticize without considering all the paths and pressures by which these things came to be. Roots and branches, and realities in between. May I note how effective the many static camera set ups are? How effective, contrarily, are the montages that trace change and progress? Performances are a treat, from big to small. The last three sequences! The one that featuring Mr. Gilbert’s long-suffering wife (Leslie Manville) almost demands that you start the film over. She also serves who only stands and waits.

See? In and after all that, that scene with Mr. Sullivan and those ladies has completely disappeared from my mind. Beyond the fact of it, I can’t for the life of me summon any of the substance of it. So where’s the harm? For an old arts-steeped dad, or this old arts-steeped dad, there isn’t any. But the least and weakest, or the small and tenderest!