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.”
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.