Mike Leigh’s seventh feature is a sumptuous-looking biopic about Gilbert and Sullivan, the Victorian-era theatrical partnership of the dramatist W.S. Gilbert (Broadbent) and the composer Arthur Sullivan (Corduner, a competent jazz pianist in real life), dramatizing the gestation and birth of their most successful work, the comic opera THE MIKADO, culminating on its opening night, 14th March, 1885.
With a running time edging 160 minutes, TOPSY-TURVY sees Leigh buckle down with exhaustive dedication to the period niceties, the sweeping characterization of a large ensemble and the lengthy preliminary works leading to the opening night, courageously using his troupers’ own singing voice, although it doesn’t always do the magic as he wishes, Leigh and co.’s endeavor deservedly earns two Oscars (costume design and makeup) for their craft, but fails to prosper in its box office revenue.
One major problem of the disconnection with its audience, particularly for those who are not hailed from an Anglo-Saxon background or unequipped with the reflexes of onrushing pride whenever hears the pair’s names being mentioned, is that these two main protagonists are wanting either charisma (in the case of a stuffy Gilbert, a wasted Broadbent, all prim and proper) or characteristic (Sullivan, an afflicted sybarite but the movie has too much reverence, or too little guts to go deep down that decadent path), therefore, their stories barely bite, the initial sticking point of a creative difference wrought by Sullivan’s stuck inspiration and physical exhaustion, which is presented as if he is fed up with the middle-brow librettos, that made his name and fortune, and decides to aim for a higher cause, writing a serious opera, naturally evanesces when Gilbert finally wades out of his comfort zone and mines into an untapped oriental culture. A waft of hypocrisy, yes, but there is no irony to sugar the pill.
The merely interesting note about the two arrives belatedly near the coda, the juxtaposition of Gilbert’s seemingly asexual interest in his wife Lucy (Manville, who is indomitably affecting in her constant frustration about their self-conscious childless plight, and puzzlement of why her husband is so gentlemanlike in her chamber, often leaves her to her beauty sleep on her ownsome) with Sullivan’s profligate proclivity, his mistress Fanny Ronalds (David) is pregnant again, finally sheds certain personal lights on top of their diametrical personalities, which triggers viewers a bigger question, apart from their respective talents, what makes them successful and long-time collaborators? Unfortunately, Leigh’s film has little to offer on that front.
Be that as it may, TOPSY-TURVY gets its mojo back when it tackles the kaleidoscopic aspects of those more approachable thespians, toiling on the stage, haggling for a salary raise, caviling at the costumes, showing solidarity against Gilbert’s willful decision or simply having a whale of time during their simulation process of a disparate culture. Among them, Timothy Spall is such a gas as the mainstay of the Savoy Theater in spite of his slightly hoarse and amateur vocal facility; a corset-strapped Kevin McKidd knows the trick of deadpan humor; both Dorothy Atkinson and Shirley Henderson are felicitous whether they are in or out of costume, with the latter stealing the show in the end to overpower spectators with her trademark high-pitched, child-like register.
By relating Gilbert’s out-of-the-box inspiration to Leigh, who also, for the first time, detaches himself from contemporary working class stratum, the usual fecund ground of his creations, TOPSY-TURVY shows up a lack of understanding between him and his subjects, and doesn’t live up to Leigh’s high-water mark, however boisterous and lavish the film looks, if its characters don’t click with audience, the rest can do little avail.
referential entries: Leigh’s MR. TURNER (2014, 8.1/10), ANOTHER YEAR (2010, 8.1/10).