Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy is a rich tribute to the theater and theater people. It’s about how Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado came to be produced, but one never thinks of it as a stuffy biopic, or even, for all its plush period bric-a-brac, as a costume drama. Leigh and his players have such a tender and sympathetic understanding of this late-Victorian era that the pastness before our eyes shades into the present; we need no interpreter to make emotional sense of what we see. The artists’ observations and intuitions bring us very deep into the drama.
The surprise here, of course, is that Leigh attempted this project at all; he’s essentially a chronicler of the messiness of the modern-day lower-middle classes. The confinements of historical biography and Victorian décor do not, at first blush, jibe with his self-styled “organic” way of working, in which he brings the cast together for many months to improvise character detail and dialogue before the cameras roll. Leigh is a freestyle martinet: He sets up a long-term way to explore the emotional depths of his material that must be tremendously liberating for performers, and yet all the while he’s shaping and beveling everything, and when he’s finally filming, he’s no friendlier to ad-libbing than, say, Cecil B. DeMille was. Leigh is often overpraised, I think, for his method: Plenty of filmmakers have elicited from actors the same high degree of psychological nuance without requiring them to live a communelike existence in which their characters’ biographies from birth are minutely recorded and picked over. There are moments in Mike Leigh’s movies – I’m thinking especially of Naked – when I’d have been grateful for a lot less character analysis. The inherent danger in Leigh’s technique is overindulgence. In movies, sometimes – oftentimes – you don’t really want to know everything about a person. Just like in real life.
The rigors of making a period film, and of sticking relatively close to the facts, probably helped cauterize some of Leigh’s usual excesses. Ironically, what should by all rights be his most reined-in film seems instead one of his freest. The freedom shows up in Leigh’s love for this milieu – for what Gilbert and Sullivan conjure up for him. He is, above all else, a man of the theater, and he has the true theater lover’s passion for the giddy reaches of drama: not only high emotion but low burlesque. That last term is crucial, because it’s what W. S. Gilbert, played extraordinarily well here by Jim Broadbent, rails against and tries to deny as he defends what he does to Allan Corduner’s equally extraordinary Arthur Sullivan, who longs to write grand opera, not comic operetta. The topsy-turvy of the title, derived from a negative review of Princess Ida in the London Times, refers to the upside-down clickety-clack cleverness of Gilbert’s plots, and it’s both a disparagement and a tribute. The beauty of Gilbert and Sullivan’s art, which is also its mystery, is that, gloriously minor, it’s more redolent and lasting than many works regarded as major.
Unlike a lot of movies about artists that skimp on their art, Topsy-Turvy really gives us an earful and an eyeful. Especially once The Mikado is in rehearsal, we’re never far away from Gilbert and Sullivan’s words and music, and this gives the film a continual lilt. Leigh and his longtime cinematographer, Dick Pope, shoot the Savoyards up close, so we can see their sweat and makeup, and that helps make intimate what might otherwise resemble a series of production numbers. The performers, all of whom do their own singing, are playing characters who both fulfill our need for theatrical caricature and move beyond it. And so, for example, Timothy Spall’s Richard Temple, who plays the Mikado, is a glorious stage diva who, when his Mikado’s song is cut by Gilbert, reveals beneath the vamping a hurt man’s pathos. Gilbert himself is a maze of contrariness, resolutely confident and mortally stung by his limitations. On the occasion of his opening-night Mikado triumph, he confesses to his wife, Kitty (Lesley Manville), that “there is something inherently disappointing about success,” and he means it. Leigh doesn’t play out the sobbiness of moments like these; he just touches on the sadness and moves on.
Though the film runs nearly three hours, it gets better as it goes along. The quirks and peccadilloes of its people, which may at first seem like cute bits, open into a deeper mood. Kitty may appear to be the archetypal “understanding” wife of a genius-autocrat, but she is pained by her separateness from her husband’s emotional life, and when, near the end, she suggests to him a scenario for a new opera, it’s something mad and surreal – an encoded way of passing along to her husband her hurt. The drinking problem of one of the Savoyards, Leonora (Shirley Henderson), which initially seems like an affectation, tears into her fresh beauty. (It’s like watching a rose petal famish from drought.) Leigh gives her the final scene in the film, alone onstage singing “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze,” and it’s like his benediction for her, and for all who are fragile like her.
Sullivan comes across at first like a suave libertine, but he has an overcast look. After The Mikado has opened, his mistress, Fanny Ronalds (Eleanor David), tells him, as he lies ill in bed, that he lights up the world, and that he can’t help it. Sullivan, who composes some of his sweetest music while plagued by bad kidneys, doesn’t fully approve of his airy gift; it lacks the seriousness of high art, and so, for him, his renown is a kind of gentle mockery.
With all this, I’ve rarely seen a movie that brought out more of the affirming joys of a life in the theater. Sullivan conducting The Mikado can’t hold back his bliss; it overrides everything that pulls him down. Gilbert, directing the cast, is in his eminent domain: The martinet has become patriarch, wit, father-confessor, God. He lives for nothing higher. The players onstage are transformed, too; their vivacity represents their finest dream of themselves. Topsy-Turvy delivers an even larger dream: the theater as life’s apotheosis.