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Topsy-Turvy is both an anomaly among the films of Mike Leigh and, contrary as it may seem, a Rosetta stone. On the one hand, it is Leigh’s only costume picture and only biopic—a far cry from the bittersweet, realistic films of contemporary working-class life for which he is known. On the other hand, it is an examination of the creative process and the collaborative work involved in putting on a show that mirrors his own methods as a filmmaker. “I’m not given to making films about filmmakers or artists,” Leigh said in 1999, when Topsy-Turvy was first released. “But I decided that it would be good to make a film about what we do, what we all go through.” Rather than choosing a modern-day creative counterpart, however, Leigh turned to the Victorian era and the collaboration between librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan—a.k.a. Gilbert and Sullivan. What’s remarkable about Topsy-Turvy, the story of how that famed team renewed their creative juices by writing and staging the zanily exotic operetta The Mikado, is that it shows how the exhilaration and the pain involved in finding truth in make-believe transcend genre, medium, and even history.
The director of nineteen feature films and even more theatrical productions, the majority of which he also authored, Leigh recently described his mode of filmmaking to me as “a combination of realism, some kind of heightened eccentricity, and my take on the world,” adding that it involves as well “a very disciplined and restrained style of shooting in relation to an organic exploration of situations, and truthful and courageous performances.” With two exceptions—Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake (which takes place in the 1950s)—Leigh’s films are set in contemporary urban or suburban Britain and might be described as social dramas, although even at their darkest they have a comic edge. They are character-driven, and indeed what is most memorable about them are the characters and the actors who play them. David Thewlis as the furious, self-hating, seductive autodidact in Naked (1993), Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as the unlikely mother and daughter in Secrets & Lies (1996), and Imelda Staunton as the empathetic illegal abortionist in Vera Drake (2004) come immediately to mind, but they are only a handful among many others, including at least a half dozen of the characters in Topsy-Turvy.
For his extraordinary body of work, Leigh has enjoyed much commercial and critical success over the years—he is a six-time Academy Award nominee and the only British director to have won both the Palme d’Or at Cannes (for Secrets & Lies) and the Golden Lion at Venice (for Vera Drake). Still, he may be best known not for any specific film but more broadly for the legendary improvisatory method that engenders such astonishing performances. He begins without a line of dialogue but with some ideas about subject, setting, and characters. He hires actors and spends many months rehearsing with them, developing a script through research and improvisation. At a certain point, he tells his cinematographer—since Life Is Sweet (1990) he’s worked exclusively with Dick Pope—something about the milieu and tone of the film, so that he can shoot some test footage. By the time the camera rolls for each scene, every word of the script is set and no more improvisation is permitted. As demanding and time-consuming as this method is, actors clamor to work with Leigh, and some return in film after film, playing vastly different characters in each. Another constant in Leigh’s filmmaking has been producer Simon Channing-Williams. Their partnership began in 1988, with High Hopes, and continued until Channing-Williams’s death in 2009.
While Leigh’s method is unique, it nevertheless shares many aspects of the process by which a story idea becomes a film or play. In conceiving his most reflexive movie, however, Leigh said, he felt that “the mirror must be placed at a distance.” The collaboration of Gilbert and Sullivan fit the bill, first, because their operettas were not only enormously popular in their day but continue to be staged, recorded, and enjoyed, their place in English culture as assured as that of the novels of Charles Dickens. And Leigh had another motive for going Victorian. “My object,” he said, “was to subvert period movies, to do it with people scratching their asses and being in relationships for real. If I just had been interested in period, I could have done poverty in the East End in the 1880s, which is a fascinating subject. But I thought it more interesting to subvert the chocolate box subject itself.” In other words, to take what in Britain is referred to as Heritage culture and give it a decidedly non-Heritage treatment.
The result is one of Leigh’s most brilliant films, and hands down the most pleasurable. The complexity of the characters and their relationships, the wealth of historical detail, the energy generated when Gilbert and Sullivan and the members of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company rehearse The Mikado (their most successful operetta), and the buoyancy of the music itself—sung by veterans of many Leigh movies, some newcomers, and a full chorus—make for a filmed entertainment that becomes more rewarding each time one watches it. Topsy-Turvy is not just a biopic about a beloved musical theater duo, it is in itself a dazzling movie musical—one that nevertheless (and true to Leigh’s anti-Heritage mission) doesn’t stint on showing the details of the darker aspects of life in the limelight, both for the performers and for those who support them without sharing a bit of the glory. (The film’s inventory of backstage self-medication is surprising only in that it hardly differs from what one finds today.)
The film begins at a moment of crisis for the partnership of Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sullivan (Allan Corduner). After writing the music for ten operettas, H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance among them, Sullivan has decided that he and Gilbert have come to a parting of the ways. He thinks they are starting to repeat themselves, and since he is chronically ill (his preperformance routine of coffee, alcohol, and morphine injections seems to have taken its toll), he wants to have a more serious career as a grand-opera composer before time runs out. To this end, he departs for the Continent, where he divides his time between upper-class drawing rooms and the brothels of Paris. (In one hilariously ribald interlude, a duo of bare-breasted prostitutes hitch up their Moulin Rouge skirts and put on a girl-gropes-girl performance, set to Olympia’s robotic coloratura aria from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann.) Left to his own devices in London, Gilbert, depressed and splenetic even when things are going well, is forced to admit that their latest operetta, Princess Ida, is tanking at the box office and that Sullivan may be correct in thinking that their winning streak is over. Backstage at the Savoy Theatre, the soloists of the D’Oyly Carte company worry as well when management pulls Princess Ida and replaces it with a revival of the successful The Sorcerer (fully staged scenes from both operas juice up the
first act of the movie and give a taste of how irresistibly ebullient and unabashedly kitschy Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas are).
Just when things are most gloomy, however, Gilbert’s wife, Lucy—or Kitty, as she’s nicknamed (Lesley Manville)—persuades her husband to accompany her to the Japanese Exhibition, which is the talk of London, and he becomes fascinated by the tea ceremony and the extreme stylization of the kabuki theater, in which the actors deliver their lines somewhere between speech and song. Broadbent, always an amazing actor, has never been more so than in this movie. As Gilbert watches the kabuki, we can see the admiration and the acquisitiveness that he feels, how not understanding a word of the performance makes it resonate for him as an abstraction, just as his own nonsense rhymes take meaning from their rhythm. Truly, you can see all these thoughts, intuitions, and desires play across his face. This is how artists—the major and the minor—operate, and in the scheme of things, Gilbert and Sullivan, though they remain an institution of popular culture, are minor. Still, Leigh never looks down on them, but rather, through the attention and the art of his filmmaking, makes us see their work as richer and more complex than it has ever seemed before.
Gilbert returns to his dark, claustrophobically overdecorated Victorian house, hangs a kabuki sword on the wall of his study, and, in one of the most perfectly implausible and liberating subjective flash-forwards in cinematic history, has a five-minute vision of a fully staged scene from The Mikado, sung by soloists and chorus on a dazzlingly bright stage decorated in eye-popping pinks and greens. So much for nineteenth-century linearity.
The partnership is reborn, much to the relief of the seemingly unflappable producer Richard D’Oyly Carte (Ron Cook) and his capable second, Helen Lenoir (Wendy Nottingham); preparations for The Mikado begin apace; and the second half of Topsy-Turvy becomes a backstage musical. Corduner and the actors playing members of the D’Oyly Carte company do their own singing; that is, they lip-synch on camera to their own prerecorded voices. Every step in the process of putting on a show is depicted in all its volatility—from contract negotiations to costume fittings (what actor hasn’t objected to her or his costume on the grounds that it would impede her or his performance or fail to show her or his attributes to their best advantage?) to voice coaching to a showdown between the entire cast and Gilbert when he wants to cut a song that all the actors believe is essential to the operetta and that showcases one of the audiences’ favorite performers (Timothy Spall). Most of these scenes are comedic, but because all the people in them are involved in an endeavor that gives their lives meaning as nothing else can, a current of anxiety and heartbreak is always threatening to surface. And every now and then, it may dawn on us that the same holds true for the actors who are playing the characters and for the team behind the camera, including their leader, Leigh. If Topsy-Turvy is a “chocolate box,” it is many layers deep.
When I recently asked Leigh how Topsy-Turvy seemed to him today, he said he was rather amazed by the scale of it—close to eighty actors (counting the chorus)—and that they had made it on such a small budget: ten million pounds, just half of what they had initially hoped for. He recalled with pleasure six months of sitting with the cast around a table piled with books and images supplied by the full-time research person, Rosie Chambers, and the actors themselves. The actors needed to be so steeped in the language of the period that they could improvise their dialogue without betraying the characters through modern idioms and constructions. The film takes its shape from the characters, their relationships, and the abundance of historical information about the world they inhabit—and the ways in which it’s both distant from and close to our own. When Gilbert uses one of the first telephones in a private home in London to talk to D’Oyly Carte, what’s delightful is not only the look of the phone itself but that he has to work out an entirely new etiquette of communication. Sullivan drops into a casual conversation the tidbit that his relatives, the Churchills, have a handful in their headstrong eleven-year-old son, Winston. Three actors indulging in oysters in a restaurant tut-tut about the British losses in the Siege of Khartoum (a bad sign for the empire) and then find themselves in gastric distress during contract negotiations with D’Oyly Carte (never risk eating tainted oysters when you have to talk money).
The mise-en-scène and editing here, as in all of Leigh’s movies, are what the director describes as “classical.” Their purpose is to focus us on the characters. Since there are more characters than usual in Topsy-Turvy, there is more use of crosscutting, and since the meaning of the film lies in the tension between artifice and reality, there are a great many close-ups that reveal the toll that putting on a show—on the stage and in real life—takes on faces and bodies. Such close-ups would have been impossible without the great actors of Topsy-Turvy. Of course, the burden of the story, and the glory that goes with it, falls to Broadbent and Corduner, but there are extraordinary turns by actors who have only one or two scenes. As Gilbert’s elderly, completely crazy father, Charles Simon manages in a very few minutes not only to convey a full human being but to tacitly reveal, through his interplay with his son, the source of Gilbert’s profoundly repressed personality and also of the madness and vicious humor that spill out in his books and lyrics.
The riskiest and most emotionally stunning scenes in Topsy-Turvy come in the last twelve minutes, when what had been a rollicking entertainment metamorphoses into an expression of extreme melancholy and loss. Leigh turns the film over to three women who have seemed, until this point, minor characters: Gilbert’s wife, Kitty, trying one more time to coax her husband to her bed, unravels as she tells him about a dream she had that is transparently about her horror at growing old without having been a mother. Sullivan’s American mistress (Eleanor David) has the opposite problem and tells her lover, in as few words as possible, that once again she’s going to have an abortion. And the D’Oyly Carte company’s alcoholic soubrette, Leonora Braham (Shirley Henderson), playing the role of Yum-Yum (the operetta’s object of desire), is left alone onstage, singing the lovely “The Sun Whose Rays” in a voice that mixes heartbreak and triumph. It’s as if all along there has been an entirely different film taking place beneath the one we’ve been watching.
“It’s such a man’s world that we’ve been in,” Leigh explained in that 1999 interview, “that it seemed right and important to let those women have their voice, no matter how elliptical that voice is. And that song, by any standard, is beautiful, not in the least because of the irony in the lyrics. Now and again, through the fusion of lyric and music, Gilbert and Sullivan hit some kind of seriousness and even profundity. So it seemed to me that they should have the last word.” Yum-Yum sings, “We’re meant to rule the world, the sun and I.” And as Henderson’s voice soars defiantly and then breaks with the effort of sustaining her character’s belief in the absolute power of beauty, the camera pulls back from the stage, back above the rows of rapt spectators who, like us viewers of the film, continue to struggle for the power to express and, long shot though it is, achieve our heartfelt desires.
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor at Film Comment and Sight & Sound. She also writes frequently for Artforum.