Topsy Turvy (UK, 1999) ****
Written and directed by Mike Leigh. Photography, Dick Pope. Editing, Robin Sales. Music,Carl Davis (from Arthur Sullivan's). Production design, Eve Stewart. Produced by Simon Channing-Williams. Cast: Dorothy Atkinson (Jessie Bond), Jim Broadbent (W. S. Gilbert), Ron Cook (Richard D'Oyly Carte), Allan Corduner (Arthur Sullivan), Eleanor David (Fanny Ronalds), Shirley Henderson (Leonora Braham), Lesley Manville (Lucy Gilbert), Kevin McKidd (Durward Lely), Wendy Nottingham (Helen Lenoir), Martin Savage (George Grossmith), Timothy Spall (Richard Temple), Alison Steadman (Madame Leon) and many others. A USA Films release. 160 minutes. PG
Delicious is the word for this labor of love and love for the theater. Delicious like a long, leisurely gourmet meal of "haute cuisine" which lasts for hours, has an unhurried pace, makes time pass most pleasurably, brings in course after course, and progresses with interesting conversations.
Writer-director Mike Leigh has carved a special film-niche for himself with very British movies that reveal extraordinary things about ordinary working-class people: High Hopes, Life Is Sweet, Naked, Secrets and Lies, et al. He (and his actors) have been awarded a host of major prizes. And that's not counting Leigh's activities in the theater, and with TV films which also get theatrical releases.
In Topsy-Turvy Leigh deals with the team of librettist W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and composer Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) or Sir Arthur after he was knighted in 1883. There's also a third man, impresario-manager D'Oyly Carte (1844-1901).
Even though one my cats is called Yum-Yum, I am no G & S aficionado. Yet I appreciate how distinctive and novel their works were and how they brought out another side of staid Victorianism.
Compared to the familiar hoi polloi characters in the other Leigh movies, the "showbiz" people of Topsy-Turvy are downright patrician. They appear not in the old genre of artists' biopic but within a limited time-frame which allows depth and details.
It begins in 1884, when the latest G & S production, Princess Ida, was not well received. By G & S standards, it's a flop. The team's first collaboration, Trial by Jury, had been followed by several hits: The Sorcerer, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, and Iolanthe. Princess Ida may have not deserved its unsuccess, but certainly Ida is no Aida. Not that one can compare hefty Grand Operas and their Bel Canto to the comic operettas that G & S invented.
Sir Arthur, bedridden with painful kidney trouble, still finds the strength to get to the Savoy Theater and conduct the orchestra. (His expressive face as he mouths the score is a marvel). But he also suffers from the musical ambition to compose, as he had in his early career, serious music. Princess Ida is the last straw. " I can't waste any more time on these trivial soufflés" he tells Carte.
Sir Arthur takes a break by going to the Continent. He is a bon vivant whose appreciation of French food and, in a Paris bordello, of a topless singing duo of ladies, bring out his "joie de vivre" and wit. It's charming. But by the time Gilbert reads him his latest libretto, Sullivan has had it with topsy-turvy, formulaic plots.
The film's 160 minutes never drag or fatigue. And I say this as the founder of the BBNMM movement -- Bring Back the Ninety Minute Movie. We are treated (and it is a treat) to wonderfully calibrated Victoriana: interiors, artifacts, people; character and personality-revealing talk; thoughts on creativity and art; the business side of productions; insights into private lives. Every minute brings something of interest, and many skillfully brief moments stand for full situations.
Topsy-Turvy revels in contrasts especially between lively man-about-town Sullivan and. serious, often dour Gilbert. The choice of words and images has the effortless feeling that comes from intelligent preparations. "Echt" British humor and educated wit are both a contrast to and a supplement of the funny singing patter of the G & S productions.
The partners are on the verge of breaking up permanently when smart Mrs. Gilbert (who like all the supporting characters is painted with forceful economy) drags her husband to a novelty, an Exposition of Japanese culture. Kabuki, dances, music and other Japanese exotica suddenly set Gilbert on his operetta road to Damascus. Thus is The Mikado born in 1885.
All this is dealt with a succession of cleverly edited scenes. Gilbert, who has bought a Japanese sword, plays with it. Cut to G & S together again, reading a new script. Cut to February 12, 1885, when dire, Empire-shaking news reaches England: General "Chinese" Gordon and his men in besieged Khartoum were massacred on January 26 by the Mahdi's rebel Sudanese. Cut to performers-to-be in The Mikado gorging themselves with oysters --and soon becoming sick. Life does go on.
The acting, from tiny to main roles, is flawless. Smart, telling, enjoyable moments, scenes or sequences abound. The funniest have Gilbert rehearsing his cast and thus becoming like a modern stage director. He has Japanese ladies show his performers how to stand, walk, and deploy fans. He instructs others on delivering lines. (Was Leigh partly inspired by Truffaut's film-within-film mishaps in Day for Night?). It is high comedy, doubly impressive when one thinks of the movie's cast rehearsing how to handle The Mikado's rehearsals. Especially since Mike Leigh and his people, in plays and movies, do not work in kosher ways. There are no standard scripts; everything derives from interaction, invention and improvisation. Assuming that process was also used in Topsy-Turvy, the approach results in wonderful smoothness and dovetailing.
There is even suspense. Gilbert cuts out the song of a performer (who recalls Robert Morley). Will he reinstate it? Will the key actor who shoots drugs, the actress wih a bad leg, or the actress who drinks, affect the performance?
One gets here many films for the price of one. G & S's life and works; how "An Operetta Is Born"; authentic shoptalk; backstage life of total verisimilitude --the best I know of-- and more. Technical aspects are brilliant. But the press seems to neglect the contribution of a major collaborator. Composer Carl Davis, born in Brooklyn but a longtime resident in England, though well-known in inner circles is not a name familiar to the public. Yet his output is huge and magnificent. Davis's scores include theatrical films (he won the British music award for The French Lieutenant's Woman); many TV films (Channel 4, BBC, etc.) that have often been released as "regular" movies or appeared on PBS; TV series from the UK; documentary series such as The World at War, The Unknown Chaplin, Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood. His new scores for silent classics (Intolerance, Ben-Hur, The Eagle, Greed, etc.) are the best ever. Prodigious Davis is the top film composer of our day, yet no one of my acquaintance knows him, except for maestro-pianist Ian Hobson who has recorded with him in England and admires him.
A final thought. Other operettas, e.g. by Vienna's Johann Strauss, by the Hungarian-born Franz Lehar, or by France's Offenbach, have traveled very well. But the untranslatable texts of W.S. Gilbert have limited the G & S repertory to English-speaking countries. Topsy-Turvy, in spite of getting two New York Film Critics Award (Best Film, Best Director) may also meet with this fate.