Topsy-Turvy (review)

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The Creative Life

Life in the theater has not changed much in the last century. As someone who has worked in theater production, I can’t tell you how many times I laughed with recognition at the foibles of actors, the demands of writers, and the soap opera that goes on backstage that’s depicted in Topsy-Turvy.

Mike Leigh’s grand and quietly passionate dramatization of the making of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado isn’t just about theater, though — it’s about living the creative life. In January 1884, the famous duo’s Princess Ida has just debuted to mixed reviews: one critic notes “symptoms of fatigue” in the production. Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner: The Imposters) is vowing to write no more operettas, no more “trivial soufflés” for the Savoy Theater, to which he is under contract — in ill health and aware his own mortality, he feels the need to write a major opera that will be his legacy. And working with William Gilbert (Jim Broadbent: The Avengers, The Borrowers) is “killing him” — theirs is not the easiest of partnerships. Gilbert himself is “humiliated” by Ida’s reception and wearily says that “sometimes one wonders why one bothers.”
Any creative person — no matter how apparently successful — will recognize that kind of ennui and the depression that invariably accompanies it. Gilbert and Sullivan both sink into professional funks, unable to work alone or with each other, but if Topsy-Turvy has a fault, it lies here, in the overly long section in which they flounder around and the Savoy manager Richard D’Oyly Carte (Ron Cook) and his assistant, Helen Lenoir (Wendy Nottingham), desperately try to mend the writers’ relationship, which is, needless to say, quite lucrative for the theater.

But once Gilbert hits upon the inspiration for The Mikado, the film picks up the pace again — which isn’t to say that Topsy-Turvy is a fast-paced film, because it isn’t. Leigh takes his time showing us the creation of probably the best-known of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works, and doesn’t take a straightforward tack, instead leaping around out of chronological order. The result is never less than totally engrossing.

Leigh, who wrote and directed Topsy-Turvy, cuts from a long take of Gilbert reading to his wife, Kitty (Lesley Manville), from the libretto of The Mikado, the ink barely dry on the page, to an extended sequence of a performance of the play. From long scenes of rehearsals with arrogant actors, not in character, running lines in their street clothes and stopped every other line to discuss pronunciation or emphasis, we run into musical numbers performed in full costume. The effect is that Leigh demonstrates a process that is invisible to most people — the one that turns a bunch of actors standing around holding scripts into a seamless stage production — with a success that movies rarely achieve.

Topsy-Turvy isn’t all serious business, though — Leigh captures the late Victorian era with a humor that also is rarely seen, sprinkling the film with the fads and fancies of the day. All the fashionable people throw smatterings of French into their conversations, for example, with such seeming randomness that it becomes almost ridiculous. Funnier still is the combination of suspicion and delight with which the Victorians approach all the new technology at their disposal — Sullivan is bemused by a “reservoir pen,” which carries its own ink, and the shouted consultations that Gilbert and D’Oyly have over an early attempt at the telephone are almost as hilarious as the code they use for discussing box office receipts, to prevent nosy operators from sharing this privileged information with competing theaters.

Topsy-Turvy is as lavish and overstuffed with Victorian opulence as any given parlor of the day — and I mean that in the best possible way. This is such a wonderful movie that I wanted to break into applause with The Mikado‘s audience onscreen.

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