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Lord High Executioners | The Nation

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Lord High Executioners

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He looks like a pear that's going bad. Tall, corpulent and much the worse for gravity, W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) sags his way through Topsy-Turvy, scarcely stirring except to drawl a sarcasm. His opinion of his mother? "A vicious woman who bore me into this ridiculous world." His contribution to lunchtime conversation? "Oh, horror, horror, hoooorror." His outlook, as one of his brightest operettas debuts at the Savoy Theatre? "As good as any condemned man can expect."

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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Though born to rhyme "scowl" with "jowl," this man has been wed in his career to someone thoroughly airy and cordial, with a Frenchified smoothness: Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner). To attend a Savoy premiere, Sullivan may have to rouse himself from a sickbed; after the performance, he may collapse. But while he's conducting the orchestra, white gloves flashing, he's all smiles, commanding others to take pleasure by exuding it himself.

In 1884, these two men undergo a professional break to match their personal rupture. The story of that near divorce provides the crisis for Mike Leigh's charming, brilliant, seemingly effortless Topsy-Turvy. The resolution, dreamed up by Gilbert and Sullivan themselves, is The Mikado, the creation of whose charmed brilliance, at the expense of much effort, is the subject of the film's second half.

Topsy-Turvy explores a relationship between antithetical collaborators, whose art (as the title suggests) turned Victorian England upside down, making it into a fantastic Japan. But the film is big enough to contain other dialectical relationships as well: authors and producers; star performers and chorus members; the imperial center and the outlying regions of the world. Ultimately, most touchingly, Topsy-Turvy is about barrenness and fecundity, which is to say men and women--men who cloak their spirits in the busy work of art, women who smother their natures and try to keep smiling.

But this is starting to sound serious. I'd better tell you quickly about the candy and oysters.

If you've followed Leigh's career, you know he takes care to feed his characters. (Life Is Sweet, which also starred Broadbent, would be the best example.) In Topsy-Turvy, he has decided that Sullivan, upon first meeting onscreen with Gilbert, should offer his partner a piece of candy. All through the subsequent conversation, which is tense with disagreement, the two men suck and slurp. Similarly, when the actor George Grossmith (Martin Savage) has to renegotiate his salary with the Savoy's impresario, Richard D'Oyly Carte (Ron Cook), he makes the mistake, just before, of gorging on oysters.

Instances abound of degustation and frailty. To give only one further example, Sullivan romps in a Paris bordello with a Mademoiselle Fromage. All right, a few more: I could also mention the "little problem" of alcoholism that plagues Leonora Braham (Shirley Henderson), the Savoy's ingénue; the festering leg on which Jessie Bond (Dorothy Atkinson) gamely supports herself while playing the gay young flirt offstage and on; the interrupted work session, with rejected snack, that puts Gilbert into a towering rage against his wife, Kitty (Lesley Manville), then sends him hurrying to the dentist. Working for the first time in the mode of period drama, Leigh builds Topsy-Turvy out of a hundred such observations of character. They are the past on a human scale--which means the film's people don't knock around loose amid the costumes and sets.

The latter, by Lindy Hemming and Eve Stewart, are as sumptuous and faithful as you could desire, whether they show the "reality" of a Victorian interior or the "fantasy" of The Mikado in performance. (When staged scenes burst from the narrative, shining with the light of cinematographer Dick Pope, you might think the gold-leaf heaven of religious painters had been proved to exist, and was much goofier than promised.) Gilbert's home, like the man himself, is dark and heavy. A few sparks can be found in the place, in the form of newfangled gadgets--a telephone, an electric doorbell--but even these function as instruments of gloom, since they help Gilbert keep his distance from people. Sullivan, as you'd expect, has more aestheticized tastes. Whistler seems to have visited his bedroom recently, to paint a peacock on the door.

The Sullivan of Topsy-Turvy is the most pleasant of men--and perhaps the most unfeeling. Early in the film, in perfect self-satisfaction, he speaks of the great music he owes the nation. At the end, more pleased with himself than ever, he sweetly pats his lover (Eleanor David) and dispatches her to end a pregnancy he would find inconvenient. The film's Gilbert, of course, is impossible. But Leigh gives him this much credit: When Kitty, at the end, delivers to him a stunning bedside monologue that sums up her sense of futility, Gilbert's face seems to crumple from within.

But I'm sounding too serious again--a mistake that Kitty wouldn't make. So, in the spirit of topsy-turvydom, I will close with the middle of the film.

At the moment when Gilbert, alone in his study, hits upon the idea for The Mikado, he does something remarkable, which he does at no other time in the picture: He moves. Picking up a Japanese sword, he mimes his version of a Kabuki battle. Suddenly, Jim Broadbent's body escapes the pull of gravity. It can pose on one leg; it can swivel and dance. The glummest of Victorians has abruptly become the Lord High Executioner. He's set free--and so, for the moment, are you.

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