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FINDING MIRACLES.

Stories of collaboration, sanctity and survival

Topsy-Turvy is a great way to begin the new millennium. Mike Leigh ("Secrets and Lies") has made his most entertaining movie, surprising us by going back to the late Victorian era to examine the curious collaboration between librettist William Schwenk Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan.

As usual, Leigh worked with his actors for months before beginning to shoot; some of the dialogue grew out of the interactions that developed among them during this period. The payoff comes in the relaxed manner in which the large cast of theater performers and upper-class eccentrics easily inhabit their parts.

Leigh's extensive research on the London theater of the time and the biographical details of his central characters guarantee both authenticity and liveliness. When Gilbert's impossible mother lies in bed and piously intones, "Never have a humorous child," it's both psychologically right and brings down the house.

The film opens in 1884 as Sir Arthur Sullivan (Alan Corduner) manages to get out of bed to conduct the premiere of "Princess Ida," but attendance soon languishes, and he wonders whether he shouldn't give up working on frivolous comedies with the crotchety Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and devote himself to writing a major oratorio. He idles away his time in France in fashionable bordellos while the asexual but domineering Gilbert labors on a new libretto.

Broadbent is hilarious as he delivers biting rejoinders to servants, his father and even his amazingly patient wife (Lesley Manville), but when impressario Richard D'Oyly Carte (Ron Cook) finally brings him together with Sullivan, the latter refuses to collaborate, using the movie's title to mock Gilbert's plot contrivances.

Fortunately, Gilbert's wife drags her husband to a London exhibition of Japanese culture. He quickly sees dramatic possibilities that will find fruition in "The Mikado," and soon has young Japanese women instructing his actors in how to take the delightfully tiny steps that will accompany "Three Little Maids from School."

The rest of this constantly delightful movie is devoted to the painstaking work that brings the new opera to life; unlike most film musical biographies, "Topsy Turvy" is genuinely devoted to the various arts of the theater. Gilbert and Sullivan are out-size comic characters, sometimes outrageously so, but as "The Mikado" slowly takes shape, we come to realize they are also consummate artists, intent on bringing a refined pleasure to audiences that remain responsive today.

"Topsy Turvy" would be worth seeing just for the rollicking performances of the century-old songs. What makes it extra fun is that Leigh brings us back-stage, showing us the complex pressures behind the creation of enduring entertainment and the crazy conditions under which geniuses are sometimes able to collaborate.

Although The Third Miracle seems to equate religion with the miraculous, it's intriguingly open-ended and avoids Hollywood kitsch. Agnieszka Holland, who grew up in communist Poland and directed earlier movies in German and French, shot it in Slavic Toronto, which is used in the picture to simulate Chicago.

A brief prologue takes place in World War II-era Slovakia. While everyone else is rushing for safety to avoid an impending air raid, a little girl runs to pray at an outdoor statue of Mary: Suddenly the atmosphere is hushed, and no bombs fall.

Thirty-five years later, Frank Shore (Ed Harris), a priest who had virtually dropped out because of a crisis of faith, is having a meal in a Chicago soup kitchen when another priest interrupts him. It seems his cynically realistic bishop, remembering Frank's competence in analyzing miracle claims, wants him to take on the job of investigating the strange events at St. Stanislaus. Parishioners there are interpreting a bleeding statue of the Virgin as evidence of the holiness of Helen O'Regan, a recently deceased immigrant woman who cared for the neighborhood's poor.

An intriguing situation, but the movie, based on a novel by Richard Vetere (described in a publicity release as a lapsed Catholic), piles on too many complications.

While examining Helen O'Regan's life, Father Shore goes in search of a girl she supposedly cured of lupus -- the first miracle -- and finds her working as a prostitute in a dangerous area. It also seems that Helen's dedication to the poor brought her to abandon her daughter Roxanna (Anne Heche) when the latter was quite young. Interviewing Roxanna, Frank sees that the daughter's resentment of her mother has made her hostile to religion. But when a convincing attraction between the two quickly develops, the audience instinctively roots for the standard movie resolution of the clash between celibacy and desire.

Although Frank's motives are unclear, "The Third Miracle" avoids that cliche because it wants to make its climax grow out of a formal ecclesiastical hearing on Helen's sanctity, which brings Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl) to Chicago as the Devil's Advocate.

Mueller-Stahl is an impressive "heavy," a European conservative who argues that Helen's marriage is in itself a near-absolute disqualification for sainthood. NCR readers may enjoy the debate between Werner and Father Shore, even as they recognize its simplistic good guy vs. bad guy assumptions, but general audience interest will probably languish until the film's eventual return to its miracle theme.

Since "The Third Miracle" is so much better than Hollywood's usual "take" on the subject, I'm tempted to overpraise it. Holland has made a movie that adults can enjoy discussing; it would have been even better if it had dug a little deeper into Father Shore's faith crisis. He is presented as having promised to become a priest when his policeman-father was at death's door; when the father was spared, Frank felt committed -- but the father died three months later. Since Frank is an intelligent and complex man, his decisions need to be made more credible.

I was not disappointed by Angela's Ashes, since I went believing Frank McCourt's memoir defied transfer to the screen. Director Alan Parker does a conscientious job, and McCourt professes himself delighted, but he must know that his voice -- which accounted for the book's amazing success -- gets virtually lost in the process.

Emily Watson is a fine haunted mother -- she's lost three children before we're properly settled into the story -- and Robert Carlyle wins a shade more sympathy for the father than I felt for him in the reading. But the three young actors who play Frank at different ages seem all but unrelated to the devastation and desperate humor they are supposed to be living out.

The streets of Limerick are gray and rainswept, there's plenty of pain, and Parker covers most of the more successful anecdotes from the book, but it's all somehow less affecting. Frank's mostly depressing experiences with teachers and clergymen are still effective, sometimes humorously, sometimes bitterly so, and I came to see that the book's voice had been used to disguise preposterous sections in the original, as in his sexual initiation by a beautiful young invalid. Indeed, the movie improves on the original in at least one area by eliminating its pointless ending, but the accompanying sentimental music is counterproductive.

Despite weaknesses, the movie is a creditable achievement, understandably softening its material in the hope of reaching a mass audience. McCourt's Irish Catholic childhood remains as skewed by class and religious narrowness as its terrible poverty, even though his painful yet somehow hilarious memories do not carry their original impact.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR's regular movie critic.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:CUNNEEN, JOSEPH
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Jan 28, 2000
Words:1223
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