As a rule, I find most of Mike Leigh's films completely unwatchable - his Happy-Go-Lucky of 2008 being about as bad as a film can get when it comes to tin-eared dialogue, lethargy-inducing mise en scène and dimwit characterization - and yet he has, in some kind of illustration of a basic human law, managed to produce a couple of really, really good movies - both period pieces: the authentically tragic Vera Drake (2004); and the authentically dazzling Topsy-Turvy - the story of how Gilbert and Sullivan got their groove back with The Mikado. And yes, in Topsy-Turvy, there is wine.
More accurately, drink punctuates the movie: a quiet index of the characters' situations and expectations, as meaningful as the clothes they wear and the expressions on their faces. Which means that when, about fifty minutes in, we observe the actress Leonara Braham (unflinchingly played by Shirley Henderson) slumped in her dressing-room, filling a wine-glass brimful of neat bourbon and staring abstractedly into its depths, we know not just that something is wrong, but that it is terribly wrong.
After all, Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) has been seen embracing the virtues of champagne (in a Parisian brothel); and some kind of high-end Burgundy, from the look of it, in a supersmart restaurant, where he inks his share in the new Savoy Hotel being built by D'Oyly Carte. His drink is a mark of licentiousness or high prosperity - in contrast with the stuff that W. S. Gilbert goes for. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent on pure top form) is prickly, diligent, obsessed with getting the small things right, keen not to waste money; tea and coffee are therefore his motifs, their sobriety only lessened when Sullivan - in one scene - plies him with a sugar-cube. Oh, and to round out the drinks selection, three of the younger male leads get stuck into some Guinness and oysters about half-way through the film; with hilarious consequences.
All of which is framed so thoughtfully, in such measured filmic terms, with such grave opulence, that it doesn't take much to disturb the surface richness. George Grossmith shooting up in his dressing-room is about the most shocking image; the actors' strike is almost as arresting, although for rather different reasons; Leonara Braham getting loaded and maudlin is another kind of backstage disruption, much bigger in impact than it has any right to be. As it happens, Miss Braham was in real life both a drunk and the mother of a clandestine child, even though her position in the company depended on her way with ingenue soprano roles. 'When I meet a gentleman, he invites me to supper,' she murmurs on-screen through her cigarette smoke, 'I mention my little secret - and then he's off, quick smart.' Her son, her 'Precious little bundle', is a tragedy as well as a justification for living - a situation which mirrors the bleak inability of the established, well-to-do Gilberts to conceive a child; as well as Sullivan's tendency to get his mistress pregnant before having the unborn child discreetly got rid of.
All of which is contained in the way Shirley Henderson aims her moue at the rim of her glassful of hard liquor, in the way she holds the glass close to her, tenderly resting it on her bodice, her fondling of the glass binding ideas of drink and maternal affection in one image. Which in turn is put into context by all the other visual references to cups, glasses, beakers and carafes littering the frame; which in their turn are all parts of the complex, crowded, visual texture of the film, whose genius is to reveal how all this density and complexity can be shaped into something as apparently air-light and uniform as The Mikado - or, if you want to go down that road, as coherent and satisfying as Topsy-Turvy itself. The glass is nothing, just a tiny part of the pattern, but on this occasion you've got to hand it to Mike Leigh: he really knows how to fill a picture with meaning.