Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Mike Leigh | 2hr 40min

W.S. Gilbert is the intelligent dramatist, reciting his lyrics like light poetry. Sir Arthur Sullivan is the musical genius, directing his cast with his sense of rhythm, pitch, and dynamics. With one expressing himself through words and the other through jaunty, musical tunes, the two aren’t always speaking the same language, and conflict frequently arises. But when they are finally in sync, creativity flows uninhibited, and inspiration strikes without warning. This is especially the case when Sullivan visits an exhibition of Japanese arts and crafts, where he has an epiphany to write what would become one of their greatest musicals – The Mikado. This fruitful period of the duo’s partnership is the historical canvas upon which Mike Leigh grafts reflections of his own creative processes in Topsy-Turvy, drawing together artists, egos, and aristocrats in this world of splendour and sensitivity.

It is incredibly refreshing to see Leigh lavish such opulently stylistic expressions all over a film which belongs to a genre so frequently confined to stale templates, and often stripped of unique directorial voices. The best artist biopics in some way reflect the eccentricities of their subjects, and when Gilbert and Sullivan just so happen to be the points of interest, opportunities to present extravagant set pieces and musicals are abundant. Leigh does indeed make the most of such scenes where we watch the duo’s theatrical visions erupt in patterns of reds, greens, and golds across the stage, with the sumptuous décor of pink cherry blossoms and Japanese architecture adorning the space, but at the same time, his sights are set far beyond the products of their virtuoso, brilliant as they are. There is beauty to be found all through their journey of creation, from the gorgeous wallpaper splashing bold colours up against the backdrops to their lowest points, to the dramatic dolly in on Gilbert’s face during his stroke of inspiration, and right down to the exacting rehearsals, where both frustration and humour is present in the actors’ repetitions of their scripted lines.

It isn’t hard to find compositions as beautiful as this one – a delicate framing of the actors through the drapes of the canopy bed.
Leigh shows off his painter’s eye in his rich use of colours to frame his characters.

And then, as if to push its ambitions even further, Topsy-Turvy continues to expand its scope beyond Gilbert and Sullivan’s focused efforts, becoming an ensemble piece that gives full credit to the collaboration of multiple minds as necessary factors in this creative process. It is certainly worth acknowledging Jim Broadbent’s performance as Gilbert as one of his best, but the collective power of every other supporting and minor character has just as much of an impact, with each of them, from Andy Serkis’ pipe-puffing choreographer, John D’Auban, to Timothy Spall’s self-conscious performer, Richard Temple, getting the chance to make their presence known.

The Robert Altman comparison is inevitable here, especially given Leigh’s adoption of his directorial method of guiding actors through improvisations, thereby letting character relationships organically emerge from seemingly insubstantial discussions. He spends full scenes fixating on whether or not actor Durward Lely shall wear a corset beneath his kimono, the wage negotiations of another actor, George Grossmith, and the attempts from the show’s “three little maids” to imitate the walks of authentic Japanese women. In heavier moments, the depictions of alcoholism, drug abuse, and health issues tie the film to its setting of Victorian London, where even the wealthiest folk aren’t completely immune to the economic and social ills of the era.

Leigh commits to his ornate backdrops even outside the theatre and homes, showing off these deep red walls at the dentist.
Again, even more splendid use of wallpaper to build out this world of Victorian England, matching it to the bedsheets and robe.

And yet these hardships and petty arguments do little to separate these artists when they collectively approach Gilbert in a bid to convince him not to cut Temple’s main song, “A More Humane Mikado”. Even through such trials, their effort in restoring confidence in their friend and colleague is abundantly sweet, but it also importantly underscores the value of collaboration and sacrifice in the dramatist’s own approach to the creation of art.

With Leigh placing such an emphasis on cooperation in the production of The Mikado, it is only right to similarly give credit to his own talented team, made up of his regular cinematographer, Dick Pope, his costume designer, Lindy Hemming, and Eve Stewart, whose specialty in period production design rightfully earned her an Academy Award on this film. There is no doubting that Topsy-Turvy is an extraordinary expression of Leigh’s visionary voice, examining his own ideas of how great art comes together. And yet in the gloriously lavish interiors, the depth of the ensemble’s talents, and the painstaking detailing of each of these characters’ intricate emotional journeys, the film becomes an ode from everyone who worked on it, dedicated to those artists who can put aside their egos to share in the joy of mutual creation.

Always this extraordinary dedication to the mise-en-scéne, as Leigh hangs on this lovely symmetrical shot of the dinner table for over a minute.

Topsy-Turvy is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.


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