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Gilbert and Sullivan's world goes 'Topsy-Turvy' in Mike Leigh's delightful new film

By Noel Murray

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  When British filmmaker Mike Leigh first broke through to American audiences in 1988 with the bleakly funny anti-Thatcher soap opera High Hopes, there was a lot of talk about his method. Since the early '70s, Leigh had been making films for the BBC by assembling a cast, presenting them with a situation, and then engaging in a series of improvisational exercises to develop the plot and dialogue before coming up with a final script. Initially, Leigh's process got as much press as his big-screen features, but as his filmography grew ever more impressive--Life Is Sweet, Naked, Secrets and Lies--critics began to note the director's knack for gripping and amusingly digressive melodrama.

At first glance, Leigh's new film Topsy-Turvy would seem to be a departure. It's a period piece--a re-creation of the events surrounding the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan's timeless operetta The Mikado. And although there are individual scenes that indulge Leigh's personal obsessions with the interaction of social classes and the awkwardness of family reunions, on the whole Topsy-Turvy is mainly concerned with meticulously assembling the details of Gilbert and Sullivan's lives and times.

Jim Broadbent stars as William Gilbert, the grumpy lyricist with a flair for wordplay that belies his chilly, loveless nature. Allan Corduner plays the much more congenial Arthur Sullivan, the accomplished composer plagued both by physical ailments and a rapacious sexual appetite. As the film opens, the collaborators have just debuted the mediocre Princess Ida at the Savoy Theatre, and are considering dissolving their partnership. Sullivan feels that it's time to take the next step in his career and write a grand opera, and Gilbert wonders if he'll ever be able to write anything again that doesn't descend into formula--his "world of topsy-turvydom," as the critics have pegged it.

In addition to documenting this low ebb in the Gilbert and Sullivan story, Mike Leigh submerges us in the character of London circa 1884. Upper-crust citizens fidget with newfangled gadgets like the telephone and the reservoir pen, and they liberally mix French into their speech to show off their worldliness. As it happens, it's just such a display of international curiosity--a museum exhibition of Japanese culture--that inspires Gilbert to break through his creative block and write the libretto for The Mikado.

The advertising for Topsy-Turvy presents a samurai sword almost falling on Gilbert's head, as if that were the bolt from the blue that brought The Mikado into being. What the marketing folks at USA Films are trying to do is to remind their potential audience of last year's period comedy Shakespeare in Love, which was also about artistic inspiration. Who can blame them? Shakespeare was a hit and an Academy Award winner. But Topsy-Turvy, though frequently hilarious, is really the antithesis of Shakespeare in Love--it's deliberate and deep instead of breezy and facile.

That depth extends to the act of creation, which Leigh presents as more complicated than merely collecting overheard speech and items of news. In fact, Leigh doesn't really ascribe the ultimate success of The Mikado either to Gilbert, who first had the idea, or to Sullivan, who dragged himself down off his elitist perch out of sheer delight at his partner's renewed pop sensibility. Instead, the second half of Leigh's two-hour-and-40-minute picture is devoted to the grueling rehearsals that really gave shape to Gilbert and Sullivan's very British vision of Japan.

Broadbent and Corduner are the solid core of Topsy-Turvy, but Leigh spends almost as much time with the supporting players--the actors, producers, craftsmen, and family members whose talents and limitations led to the formation of the final work. Indeed, the sharpest impressions are left by a couple of actors out of the spotlight. Timothy Spall and Martin Savage play two members of the Savoy company, and their creative and personal problems make a fascinating sideshow, especially in a handful of riveting (and very funny) scenes where the actors work out their lines and their songs, trying to nail the precise feeling that Gilbert and Sullivan are looking for.

If this description of the rehearsal process sounds familiar, no surprise--it's similar to how Leigh himself works. Many have viewed Topsy-Turvy as an eloquent defense of Mike Leigh's own filmmaking methods, showing that the theatrical tradition has always been more collaborative than we have noted. (Along those lines, the members of Leigh's own company had to do extensive research into the 19th-century milieu they were about to portray; as a result, they were able to capture the flavor of late-19th-century speech, a feat as impressive as it is entertaining.) The magic of collaboration is clearly the presiding theme of the film, although Topsy-Turvy is also about the anxiety and the mysterious forces that surround popular art--the fear that an entertainer has run out of ideas, or that he is squandering his talent, or that he had no talent to begin with.

As for the results of all this backstage toil, Leigh gives us generous samples of performances from Princess Ida, The Sorcerer, and especially The Mikado. Some viewers have complained that Topsy-Turvy is too long and too slow, and they point to the lengthy excerpts from the operettas as examples of what could've been judiciously trimmed. But the full songs serve a purpose, not the least of which is to set the scene as carefully as the dryly witty moments when characters politely insult each other. There's humor both intentional and unintentional in the sight of kimono-clad British actors singing about Japanese customs in cockney slang. Was that Gilbert's commentary on the arrogance of colonialism, or was he just wearing his own Union Jack blindfold?

The raising of that question, and others, is the main reason why Leigh spends so much time on the actual productions. So many films about art and artists merely hint at the work that was produced, asking us to take it on faith that it was brilliant. Leigh gives us ample portions of The Mikado, and just as he does with his actors, he lets the work speak for itself.

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