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Topsy-Turvy

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 25 February 2000

Written and Directed by Mike Leigh.

Starring Allan Corduner, 
Jim Broadbent, Ronald Cook, 
Wendy Nottingham, Timothy Spall, 
Martin Savage, Kevin McKidd, 
Shirley Henderson, Dorothy Atkinson, 
Eleanor David and Lesley Manville.  

At the beginning of Mike Leigh's film Topsy-Turvy, Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) wants to write a symphony. He has toiled for many years with W.S. "Schwenk" Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) on the writing of light operettas; their latest, Princess Ida, has wilted not only because it has happened to open in London during the midst of a heat wave. Sullivan has found that working with Gilbert has made him "repetitious, and, as he tells his lady friend Fanny Ronalds (Eleanor David), "My time is finite." The two men, much to the regret of the management of the D'Oyly Carte Theatre, to whom they make their first announcement and who respond that not only they but "thousands" of people in London will regret the loss, decide to part-ways.

Sullivan's wish is not difficult to understand as the movie progresses. When Gilbert sits down and begins reading to him the outline for a new operetta, one set in the Sicilian mountains, allowing for lots of opportunities to use "Gypsy music, and a story revolving around the discovery of a "magic elixir, you don't wonder why Sullivan doesn't become overwhelmed and keel-over from the thought of working on such material. But, later on, Gilbert is taken, with initial reluctance, by his wife Lucy (Lesley Manville) to see a Japanese cultural exhibition, after which he is, literally, almost struck with the idea for a new show, one without Gypsy music and magic whatzits: The Mikado.

When it was first announced that Mike Leigh, the director of Naked and Secrets and Lies, decidedly modern films which were intensely and deeply involved with modern mores and lifestyles, was going to do a film on Gilbert and Sullivan, one wondered if he could pull it off. Well, some directors are entitled to at least one folly in their lifetimes, and Leigh, one of the best filmmakers working today, was certainly entitled to his. Ha ha. As it turns out, Leigh is not larking about, here, in another century for the fun of it. This is a movie about how a stage show is put together, from start to final curtain, and as with other Mike Leigh films, the story is in the details. How the exaggerated expression of a Kabuki actor is transformed into the sternly caricatured look of the Mikado in the operetta. How the D'Oyly Carte management go about the business of handling daily box office figures, and how they are communicated punctually to Gilbert by the use of an early telephone system (which, at Gilbert's house, is kept in an enclosure which looks like a closet), and how Gilbert insists that they be transmitted to him by verbal code (long conversations are difficult to conduct on the equipment). Gilbert's father (Richard Simon, in a brief but indelible appearance) is still vexed by his marriage to his "gorgon" wife, is given over to sudden hallucinogenic fits, and won't ring the front doorbell because he's afraid he'll be electrocuted. In such an atmosphere does Gilbert come up with the "topsy-turvy" plots for his operettas.

Sullivan, on the other hand, is unmarried and still imbued with a brio for life. At the podium in the orchestra pit, he conducts with one hand perched aloft in the air, keeping time with a short, stubby baton, while the other is free to cue and shape the music. He is also troubled by medical ailments: he barely makes it to the opening night of Princess Ida, and does so with the aid of several people, an injection, cups of coffee, a swig out of a small bottle, and many hands holding him and guiding him along. Invigorated by a trip to Europe, afterwards, he hears Gilbert's story for The Mikado, in which one of the characters is saved from being put to death by being named the Lord High Executioner, and is taken with it immediately.

During rehearsals, Gilbert, who directs the production, brings in Japanese women to show how the actresses playing the "three little maids from school" are supposed to walk authentically, and snap their paper fans open and shut (an action that would become a trademark of the show). And both actors and actresses are dismayed to learn that their authentic silk costuming -- the kimonos that one Londoner describes as "those funny dressing gowns" -- won't allow them to wear their usual corsets on-stage. One actor (Kevin McKidd), who's Scottish and married, becomes incensed that everyone in the audience will be able to see his legs. He's not only embarrassed for himself, but also for what his wife may feel.

The film, which has richly coloured cinematography (by Dick Pope, who has photographed several of Mike Leigh's pictures), production design and costumes, has as much of an unfailing sense of accuracy for its place and characters as any of Leigh's modern-day films. One feels that this must truly have been the way people moved and spoke and behaved at the time (the story takes place in London during 1884 - 85), yet nothing feels arch or strained. Yet, at two hours and forty minutes, the film moves by at a clip. There are many things in it to be found and enjoyed. The immensely talented Timothy Spall, who plays Richard Temple, the actor playing the Mikado, and the way he reacts when Gilbert informs him during final rehearsals that his solo number is to be cut. Martin Savage, who makes Grossmith, the actor essaying the part of Koko, the Lord High Executioner, the picture of a beautifully proud and haughty pelican of a man. Shirley Henderson, whose voice seems to have been mulled in plum brandy, as Leonora, the D'Oyly Carte's lead soprano, agreeing to be allowed to come back to the company as long as she looks after her "little weakness" (not her self-infatuation, which she has a lot of, but the way she adores herself in the mirror while drinking absinthe from a fluted glass). Lesley Manville, previously seen in Leigh's 1988 film High Hopes, and who seems the very breathe of delicate femininity as Gilbert's wife, Lucy.

When Jim Broadbent's W.S. Gilbert, a man who is guided by an idea of stern, orderly living and composure, sits, in his formal wear, at his wife's bedside (their living arrangements include separate bedrooms), he confesses to find that there's something very irritating about success. "My eyes turn red," he says. Now, he and Sullivan must come up with something new, after the excruciating experience of putting on The Mikado and waiting, hoping, that the audience's response at the end will be favorable. Lucy Gilbert begins to spin, off the top of her head, a fanciful story that they could try, more "topsy-turvy, but as she goes on, you realize that what she's really talking about is something else entirely: the state of things into which she and her husband's marriage has fallen. You can tell that it is something that she had not intended to do, and it is something which Gilbert could advantageously, even heroically, respond to in such a way as to change things for the better. It illustrates something which Mike Leigh does very well: drawing you into a scene one way, and, as if it were the easiest thing in the world to do, steering the course so that it ends up revealing something else unexpected, something insightful about the characters whom you've come to care and even enjoy the company of that you didn't know about before. The film expands and becomes richer in the process.

By comparison to the Gilberts, the bachelor Sullivan shares his evening with Fanny Ronalds, who has, along with her circle of friends, taken up smoking. It has been found, she tells Sullivan, that smoking is good for you, invigorating even, and so everyone is taking it up. The ribbons of cigarette smoke, taunting us in our air-sealed, smokeless society, can be seen mischievously wafting and billowing through the air in frame after frame of the film.  


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