Topsy Turvy

by Cathleen Myers

Director-writer Mike Leigh’s wondrously entertaining film about the making of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado is 160 minutes of sheer joy! Leigh, better known for stories of gritty modern realism, richly deserves his Oscar nomination for best screenplay. If the Academy were not full of jostling Philistines, the film would have also had a Best Picture nomination.

There have been other film bios of G&S but Leigh had the happy idea of focusing on a "crisis" year (1884-1885) in the great partnership – the period between the relative failure of Princess Ida and their greatest hit The Mikado. Sullivan, plagued by chronic ill health and feeling his biological clock ticking, longs to create serious works of music and grand opera instead of the frivolous operettas that have made him a household name. Gilbert, suffering from writer’s block, is unable to create a libretto without relying on his old "topsy turvy" formula. Sullivan, with his mind on higher things, demands instead a story with real human interest! Their creative and personal differences drive a wedge between them that threatens to sever the partnership – until Gilbert finds his inspiration in a very unusual quarter.....and the rest is history.

Well, G&S fans already know the story and we certainly won’t spoil it for those of you who don’t. Like most Leigh films, Topsy Turvy is very much an ensemble effort by an astonishingly talented cast. The actors portraying the singer-actors of D’Oyly Carte’s theatre company are not only extremely true to their historical characters but also do all their own singing – and admirably. William Broadbent (W.S. Gilbert) has a star turn as the ironic humorist whose subtle jokes most people (including some of the film’s modern critics) just don’t "get." Arthur Corduner as the rakish composer Sir Arthur Sullivan movingly portrays his frustrated genius and does all his own piano playing. Especially fascinating are the rehearsal scenes (which Corduner often accompanies), including generous chunks of The Mikado’s gorgeous score and darkly hilarious libretto. Anyone with theatrical experience can testify to how true to life the backstage and rehearsal scenes are. We see G&S, their chorus and orchestra, and their talented but quirky actors working together on ensembles, on choreography, on stage business and even costume creation (Costumers will love the "corset" scenes!). And we get to know the actors behind the roles: Leonora Braham (Shirley Henderson), the lovely but aging soprano ingenue whose personal problems are destroying her career; sexy soubrette Jessie Bond (Dorothy Atkinson), stealing scenes offstage and on while coping with an injury (No disability insurance back then, you know!); vain but charming romantic tenor Durward Lely (Kevin McKidd); vulnerable bass-baritone Richard Temple (Timothy Spall); and star comic George Grossmith (Martin Savage), constantly ‘on’, fiendishly gifted, with a secret vice that is destroying him. And for once even the chorus members emerge as distinct human beings with lives.

At least one major critic has complained about Leigh’s historical "liberties" but these are minor and, indeed, the film accurately captures the look and feel of late Victorian London. The 1880’s "interiors" and costumes are extremely accurate and reflect class distinctions well: Trim, graceful little Mrs. Gilbert’s bustle gowns are pretty but a bit old-fashioned when compared to the gowns of Sir Arthur’s ultra-fashionable American mistress, Mrs. Ronalds (Eleanor David) while the theatre’s highly efficient business manager, Helen Lenoir (Wendy Nottingham), wears tailored suits and shirtwaist/skirt combinations befitting a prototype of the modern business woman. And, for once, the use of language is almost letter-perfect and there is meticulous use of last names and titles. Only the most intimate friends in the film are on a first name basis - a point rarely made in modern historical films. Gilbert and Sullivan - who are colleagues but most decidedly not friends - address each other, correctly, as "Gilbert" and "Sullivan." And even the choristers and musicians are granted the professional courtesy of a "Mr." or "Miss." There are some great musical in-jokes, too: During Sullivan’s "recuperative" visit to a fancy Parisian brothel, he is serenaded with Olympia’s doll song from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman - highly appropriate since Jacques Offenbach was his only rival as an operetta composer - and had made a successful transition to Grand Opera, Sullivan’s great ambition.

We honestly don’t know how much of the film’s back-stage action is fictional because Mike Leigh and his actors have researched their parts far more thoroughly than we have. The falling Japanese sword anecdote may be apocryphal but there certainly was a Japanese Exposition in London in 1885 that the Gilberts may have attended. Whether Leonora Braham was an alcoholic or whether Grossmith shot up cocaine before performances is matter of speculation, though Sullivan most definitely did use morphine as a painkiller and Grossmith did suffer greatly from "nerves" and retired prematurely for " health reasons" (Remember that the Victorians shot up drugs as casually as we pop pills). Was Sullivan a rake? Indeed, yes. His secret diaries reveal him to have been the very model of a swinging bachelor in private life. The scenes of Gilbert pacing the streets during the premiere of The Mikado have puzzled some viewers (and critics) but, whether he was seeking illicit companionship or just walking off his nerves, it is a fact that Gilbert found it difficult to sit through premieres, and often roamed the streets until the final curtain fell.

Above all, Topsy Turvy is certainly true to life in its depiction of the creative process and of the process of bringing a work of theatre to life. And the music is to die for! Who could ask for anything more?

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