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If you’ve seen Mad TV’s gag commercial for “Angela’s Ashes: The Board Game,” you’ll know pretty much what to expect from Alan Parker’s somberly respectful film. The gamepieces are potatoes, and you never move forward on the board—the squares read, “Twins die, move back 10 spaces” or “Da drank the wages again, move back two spaces.” Parker makes this predictable circuit predictably arty by filming everything in the rainy blue-gray that has somehow established itself as the palette of cinematic poverty; everything from the cobbled streets to the men’s tattered coats to Emily Watson’s eyes is the color of old tombstones—including the old tombstones.
The only way a story like Frank McCourt’s memoir of his miserable Irish childhood can have any freshness is if it is recounted the way McCourt tells it, in a raucous, bemused tone, with confusion bumping up against ferocity on every page. Parker borrows McCourt’s anecdotes but leaves tone behind—Angela’s Ashes is all picturesque paucity and dreary sentimentalism. The three young actors who play Frankie (from youngest to oldest, Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, and Michael Legge) do fine work individually, but each seems to grow into an entirely different person. Watson’s bird-boned martyr Angela looks affronted but brave, and Robert Carlyle, as feckless patriarch Malachy, repeatedly escapes the oppressive household, presumably to drink up whatever little cash the McCourts have harvested, although I wouldn’t blame him if he’s out searching for another film to be in.
Angela’s Ashes comes to life during its middle section, when the Catholicism of Ireland in general, and Limerick in particular, is given its full eccentric range. Tangled up with other values such as sex and poverty, the creepy Christianity on display at Frankie’s school is portrayed as being more damaging—and far more absurd—than the jaunty life skills he’s forced to pick up at home. McCourt’s memoir is more than a series of anecdotes about dead babies, sudden vomit, flooded apartments, and flea infestations—it’s a spirited account of how normal even the bleakest of existences feels to a child who has little to compare his own life to. Parker’s film, on the other hand, strains to exhibit the McCourts as figures of self-conscious pity, pluckily getting by despite knobby knees and pouring rain.
It is fashionable to depict a smug imperialist power at its apex as one woefully, ignorantly in the wrong. But Mike Leigh, the surgically precise dissector of British class complexities, has made a joyful and generous portrait of England at her ripest point—in the empire’s ascendancy of the 1880s—in the throes of creating a perfect thing (now unfashionable), Gilbert and Sullivan’s greatest comic opera, The Mikado.
The year is 1884, and sickly, egocentric roue Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) just manages to rise from his sickbed to conduct the latest and least of G&S works, Princess Ida. Audiences are indulgent of this rote retooling of a typically “topsy-turvy” scenario, but a heat wave strikes and keeps the people away in droves. Sullivan sees this near-failure as a chance to extricate himself from what he believes to be a debilitating partnership with his librettist, the cranky, courtly, eccentric William Schwenck Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), and return to classical composition, finally making his name as a (solo) composer of great symphonies. But a contract with Richard D’Oyly Carte (Ron Cook) of the Savoy Theatre (soon to expand to the Savoy Hotel) has trapped them both, and Gilbert’s wan efforts to fulfill his obligation—revolving around magic elixirs, as opposed to the magic potions, magic philters, and magic boxes of previous works—exasperate Sullivan.
The film dawdles in setting up the main action—the inspiration for, and crafting and performance of, The Mikado—because Leigh wants us to know who we’re dealing with before we witness them pouring themselves into a work. They are actually troublesome, arrogant men who, despite the camouflage of polite language of the Victorian age, manage to reach a huffy impasse in record time. (For men so accustomed to veiled wit and surface respect, coming across the discursiveness of Japanese culture must have felt like rowing to home.) Ostensibly nursing his kidneys but actually gearing up for a new career, Sullivan idles with his handsome American mistress (Eleanor David) and makes merry in low Parisian brothels.
Meanwhile, Gilbert accepts the support but not the physical comfort of his wife, Kitty (Lesley Manville), and sulks operatically until she drags him to an exhibition on Japanese culture. Inspiration and wonder dawn in his eyes as he takes in the heathen exoticisms on display: a fusty, two-character Noh drama; a woman spinning; the coy, floral grace of young girls serving tea. Green tea. Struck by the show and nearly by the samurai sword he has purchased as a souvenir, Gilbert begins to put together a topsy-turvy to beat them all—one that reaches out to touch far shores and the very fringes of the 20th century as well. (A “reservoir pen” and the difficult, newfangled telephone make cameo appearances.)
As the opera comes together, the cast members flourish as individuals and performers. We’ve seen them before in bits and pieces—rotund comic caricaturist Richard Temple (Timothy Spall) arguing with Lely, the young leading man (Kevin McKidd), over whether Princess Ida’s weak characterizations spell the end for G&S; vague, lovely Leonora Braham (Shirley Henderson), swilling wine and talking subsistence in her flutey, disconnected voice with similarly single actress Jessie Bond (Dorothy Atkinson), who deigns to sing at private salons whereas single mother Leonora will not. A long chunk of The Sorcerer’s first act is filmed in its entirety (it is revived while the partners work out their differences), verifying the first-rate talent of George Grossmith, a classic G&S comic lead, adept in the roles requiring prancing, whimsy, and uncanny vocal speed and precision. (The phrase “intoxicated costermongers” just rolls off his tongue—not even onstage—and he gives a spittingly funny turn to his condemnation of doctors with a rundown of their sins, including “magnetizing the children!”) Later, many of the actors converge on D’Oyly Carte to negotiate a pay raise, and others ignorantly discuss world politics with all the aristocratic lassitude of entitled know-nothings.
Topsy-Turvy lifts off like a dirigible as rehearsals—another newfangled invention—begin; the production really does seem like one of those beautifully painted Jules Verne flying machines, impossibly large but wondrously light and totally new. In a crude pre-Stanislavskian attempt to show his actresses how Japanese maidens walk, Gilbert hauls in three ladies from the exhibition, whose lack of English and air of wonder at the tights-clad choreographer and their staring, buttoned-up counterparts is excruciatingly funny and painful—a trick only Leigh can pull in equal balance. Costume fittings go badly as the actors, male and female, protest the instruction to ditch their corsets. But there is nothing cliched about the character revelations we encounter; it is just the opposite. These people—spoiled, petulant, sheltered, shortsighted, or egotistical—aren’t types with a twist but artists whose work speaks for them, whatever their flaws. Corset-dependent prettyboy Lely isn’t particularly vain or shallow; Grossmith’s appalling secret doesn’t stop him from performing; jocular Falstaffian Temple is a bundle of hidden discipline and love for his art.
The rehearsals are a riveting combination of grueling work and good humor, and they grind on, alternately wearing down and whipping up the cast and orchestra. By opening night, they can’t wait to unleash their invention. They hope it floats, and so do we. But Leigh allows us to see it as if we’re the librettist himself, peeking through his fingers—a scene here, a scene there, a curtain call, an ecstatic coda. Sullivan’s rolling thematic whipcords and Gilbert’s sparkling, intricately rhymed byplay are pleasant enough on their own; but together, each anchoring and answering the other, they constitute a formula of a power that no magical philter can touch. As Leonora—a vague, alcoholic, tarnished woman—sings “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze” in a crystalline soprano, the camera pulls slowly away from her transported face, and we soar over the heads of the audience, intimacy giving way to communal bliss, the words “the moon and I” glittering with melancholy, and now, as ever, art transcends human imperfection. CP