Tag: Kevin McKidd

Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Allan Corduner and Jim Broadbent excel as the Gilbert and Sullivan’s in Mike Leigh’s superb Topsy-Turvy

Director: Mike Leigh

Cast: Jim Broadbent (WS Gilbert), Allan Corduner (Sir Arthur Sullivan), Lesley Manville (Lucy “Kitty” Gilbert), Ron Cook (Richard D’Oyly Carte), Eleanor David (Fanny Ronalds), Wendy Nottingham (Helen Lenoir), Timothy Spall (Richard Temple), Vincent Franklin (Rutland Barrington), Martin Savage (George Grossmith), Dorothy Atkinson (Jessie Bond), Shirley Henderson (Leonara Braham), Kevin McKidd (Durward Lely), Louise Gold (Rosina Brandham), Andy Serkis (John D’Auborn), Dexter Fletcher (Louis), Sam Kelly (Richard Barker)

It seems an odd-fit: Mike Leigh, auteur of working class drama, prestige period films and the music of the middle-class in Gilbert and Sullivan. But that’s to forget Gilbert and Sullivan were among the masters of theatre – and Leigh himself is a theatrical great. Topsy-Turvy, from seeing the most uncharacteristic of the director’s works, in fact perhaps an examination of the creative process Leigh has made his life. It’s a wonderfully made, superbly executed tribute to the struggles and rewards of artistic creation. A celebration of how disparate personalities come together to create something bigger than themselves. Affectionate, heartfelt, at times quietly moving, Topsy-Turvy is both one of Leigh’s most enjoyable films and one of his most tender.

It’s 1884 and the creative partnership between WS Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is at a turning point. With their latest, Princess Ida, hardly setting the box-office alight. Sullivan feels the partnership has gone stale – and also feels under pressure to turn his attention towards more ‘serious’ composing. Gilbert refuses to change his next libretto, which Sullivan feels is effectively more of the same. Things change though when Gilbert is intrigued by an exhibition of Japanese arts and crafts, quickly creating a new libretto: The Mikado. The two geniuses, finally in unison, work together to bring the production to the stage.

Topsy-Turvy is probably Leigh’s most purely entertaining film. For anyone who has ever been involved in theatre or the arts, you’ll certainly recognise more than a few moments in this film, which is practically Leigh’s love letter to the arts. Leigh’s aim was to pay tribute to the difficulties of creativity and the demand of having to constantly refresh and reinvent your work to stay relevant and fulfilled. He succeeded: few films have so beautifully captured the struggle, pain, satisfaction and joy of creation or the strange anti-climax artistic success can bring.

Most of the second half of the film is a fascinating look at every step required to bring a production to life. From casting and contract negotiations, to costume fittings, staging and work in the rehearsal room. We get a fascinating insight into the complex backstage politics and squabbles in this small world. From actors bitching about the management (always incompetent, regardless of the situation) to the delight and playfulness of rehearsals as different opportunities are explored, it’s a wonderfully true insight into the theatre. Matched with the intricate and extraordinary detail of the reconstruction of the original production – and you have an enthralling insight into theatre. It also very appropriate for Leigh, whose organic methods of creating a film through copious rehearsal and improvisation remains very similar to theatre.

Alongside this though, the film has plenty of sympathy for the cost of creative exertion. Many of the actors lead sad and even lonely lives. Shirley Henderson’s Leonara Braham struggles with drink, Martin Savage’s George Grossmith is a drug addict (the company is too polite to mention it, but he’s clearly struggling with withdrawal at the dress rehearsal), Dorothy Atkinson’s Jessie Bond has constant pains from an unhealed ulcer. WS Gilbert and his wife lead a chaste life, he as terrified of intimacy and connection as he is of watching first nights. Sullivan juggles health problems and a long-running, regular-abortion marked, affair with Fanny Ronalds with a lingering sense of shame at not having exploited his talents more fully. These are lives that come to life when doused with creation, for all the off-stage world reveals trouble and strife.

Much of the first half is a wonderfully judged contrast between the extraverted Sullivan, keen to stretch himself but lacking the application and drive, and the repressed Gilbert, doggedly ploughing on with his (stale-sounding) original idea and unable to comprehend Sullivan’s reluctance. Leigh’s film could easily have manifested itself as a clash between two mis-matched partners. However, while the film expertly draws the parallels between the two, it also shows how much their energy comes from mutual respect. Sullivan is, after all, right that Gilbert’s first idea is a limp retread. But Gilbert’s Mikado idea is so good we don’t need a scene showing Sullivan change his mind – the simple contrast of Sullivan’s chuckles and animated striding while Gilbert reads him The Mikado’s libretto with his boredom and constant questions to the abandoned libretto speaks volumes.

Jim Broadbent is outstanding as Gilbert. He has the repressed distance, the grumpy-old-man bluntness but he mixes it with small flashes of excitement and rapture that speak volumes. His fascinated glances at the Japanese exhibition – soaking up inspiration – are beautifully judged, while his later excited larking around with a samurai sword (the very next scene sees him with a first draft) is perfect. Broadbent is both supremely funny, with several perfectly judged mon-bots, and also heartbreakingly, unknowingly lonely in his distance and fear of emotional contact. Allan Corduner makes a perfect contrast as the brash Sullivan, enjoying fame in a way Gilbert never can, but sharing with him a tortured sense of his need to fulfil his artistic potential.

The rest of the cast – a delightful mix of Leigh regulars and familiar faces – are also fabulous. Lesley Manville is wonderful as Gilbert’s wife, a gentle, eager-to-please woman who we discover has carefully buried deep regret about her emotionally repressed marriage and lack of children (Gilbert’s own difficult relationships with his parents have had a long reach on his life). Timothy Spall is wonderfully entertaining as bitchy leading actor who reacts with quiet despair when his big number is cut. Shirley Henderson’s fragility is perfect for a woman whose stage presence masks her emotional vulnerability and drink dependence. Dorothy Atkinson and Martin Savage are marvellous as two actors whose willingness to carry on under all conditions is skilfully contrasted.

Leigh’s film is also a brilliant reconstruction of time and era (rarely can a researcher be so highly billed on a film’s credits). There is a delight taken in showing how the characters react to new inventions, from Gilbert’s bellowing phone calls (“I am hanging up the phone now!”) to Sullivan’s wonder at a fountain pen (“What will they think of next?”). The design from Eve Stewart, the glorious photography of Dick Pope and the Oscar-winning costumes Lindy Hemming all are perfectly judged. The film though never becomes buried in “prestige costume drama” trappings: it’s eye for history is to acute. From alcoholism to drug addiction, broken families to the seamier streets of London, this is a film that never succumbs to easy nostalgia.

What it remains is a loving tribute to the strange families the build up around theatre. When Temple’s song is cut from the play, the chorus come together humbly but selflessly to beg for the song to be retained, because of their affection and regard for Temple. There may be disagreements, but everyone pulls together to stage the show when the time comes. Leigh’s film is full of wit, affection and a deep, loving regard for those who have chosen a life of creativity. While the film can show the cost of such a life – and the contrasting emptiness and regret away from the stage, in a life which can doesn’t always provide satisfaction – it also celebrates art in a way few other films can. One of the greatest films about the theatre ever made.

Trainspotting (1996)

Another happy day in Edinburgh… Ewen Bremner, Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle define their careers in the mid-1990s phenomenen

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Ewan McGregor (Renton), Ewen Bremner (Spud), Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy), Robert Carlyle (Begbie), Kevin McKidd (Tommy), Kelly Macdonald (Diane), Peter Mullan (Mother Superior), Eileen Nicholas (Mrs. Renton), James Cosmo (Mr. Renton), Shirley Henderson (Gail Houston), Stuart McQuarrie (Gav), Irvine Welsh (Mikey)

Surprise, surprise the Drug’s Don’t Work. They just make you worse. Honestly, watching Trainspotting you would have to be a Grade A moron or wilfully missing the point to ever imagine that this film could, in any way what-so-ever, be endorsing the life of heroin addiction. The unbalanced, unreliable, sickly-looking, soul crushingly blank-eyed losers in this film are no-ones idea of an aspiration. The fate of Tommy alone, starting the film as a health freak and ending it as a smacked out, paper thin, wasting AIDS victim could only encourage the truly unbalanced to take up drugs.

You must know the story: Ewan McGregor is our “hero” Renton, a junkie with delusions every so often (the film implies this has occurred multiple times) of going clean, kicking the habit only to find that he is always drawn back in – largely it seems due to his own weak personality. Fellow junkies include Spud (Ewan Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) and later (tragically) Tommy (Kevin McKidd). On the edge of their junkie circle (not a user) is psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlyle) who doesn’t need drugs when he can get a high from starting a bar fight. The basic plot is slim in this whipper sharp film where experience is all – Renton goes clean, gets sucked back in, misses prison, goes cold turkey, escapes to London, gets sucked back into a drug deal. That’s basically it. What’s important here is the experience.

This is possibly one of the best films about addiction ever seen (I watched it in a double bill with The Lost Weekend which actually works out as a pretty natural combo). Boyle and screenwriter Andrew Hodge aren’t scared to show that drugs at times can be fun (after all if they didn’t make you feel good part of the time why would you do them?) and they can give colour to life (particularly to the shallow non entities this film centres on). The is even a strange family warmth to Renton and friends getting smacked out in an otherwise disgusting dilapidated drug pit, listening to Sick Boy dissect the Sean Connery Bond films. This is then brilliantly counterbalanced by the appalling lows – from the truly unsettling dead baby, abandoned and unfed in said drug den, to Renton’s appalling cold turkey. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing here is that Danny Boyle directs with such verve and with a gleeful delight for every single shooting and editing trick in the book, but the film never feels like a triumph of style over substance, or as if the tricks are the centre of the director’s attention. Instead throughout the whole film you can tell the heart of the film makers – and therefore the heart of the viewer – is also focused on the story and the characters. So we get a film that crackles with energy, with a sense of youthful vitality (that is vital to understanding its characters), has an attractive anti-society message – but also reminds us that the perils of following this kind of counter culture life can be truly horrifying.

At the centre of this film is Ewan McGregor, who I don’t think has ever found a role that he could seize and bring to life as successfully as he did with this one. McGregor is captivating, managing to skilfully demonstrate without any judgement a man who believes he is strong, but is in fact desperately weak. His performance is so charismatic that you hardly notice that Renton is, actually, a pretty nasty person. High or not he has a barely concealed contempt for nearly everyone around him, his reaction to the baby death is shockingly cold, his treatment of Tommy laced with indifference, his pronouncements to the audience overflow with self-regard and delusion. But you just don’t notice.

What you do notice is that Robert Carlyle’s Begbie is a total nutter. Just like McGregor, I think Carlyle struggled to find a role that matched this one, probably not helped by the string of psychos he was offered by casting directors. Carlyle again actually isn’t in the film that much, but he nails how terrifying total self belief can be when matched with a complete lack of any moral sense. In fact most of the cast have hardly ever been better. Excellent support also comes from Peter Mullan, Eileen Nicholas, James Cosmo, Shirley Henderson and Stuart McQuarrie while Irvine Welsh pops up as low rent dealer.

Electric film making with a heart, I don’t think even Danny Boyle has topped this. There is something strangely perfect about this film – anything more and it might out stay it’s welcome, but every scene has something magic in it, some little touch that stays in the mind – either performance, dialogue, direction or all three. It looks fantastic and seemed to define its era. So fingers crossed for the sequel. No pressure…