Harking back to the days when the sun never set on the British empire, Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy takes us behind the scenes during the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan's Japan-inspired operetta The Mikado, which Leigh, in interviews, has described as "about as Japanese as fish-and-chips." One might have expected Leigh, who's looked at England from the bottom up in such movies as High Hopes and Secrets and Lies, to cast a wary eye on a work of art that, for all its many charms, is a landmark in the history of cultural imperialism. On the contrary, he seems to have appointed himself an honorary Savoyard. Undeniably pleasurable but with a streak of pain, Topsy-Turvy is a loving tribute to the vagaries of artistic collaboration and to the victories and defeats of a life in the theater--the smashes, but also the flops. Gilbert and Sullivan never really had a flop, but Princess Ida didn't perform the way they expected it to, one critic suggesting that Gilbert, the word man, had achieved all there was to achieve in "the realm of topsy-turvy." Meanwhile, Sullivan, the music man, had thoughts of graduating from operetta to opera. The movie makes it clear that, though fated to spend eternity together, these two Victorian gentlemen were as different as night and day, Gilbert a bit of a stuffed shirt, Sullivan something of a bon vivant with an eye for the ladies. And they might have split up altogether if Gilbert's wife hadn't dragged him to a Japanese exhibition, which set The Mikado in motion. Perhaps half of this rather long movie is taken up with the rehearsals and first performance of the operetta, all of which Leigh nails with documentary-like precision. And so we get to see the ushers methodically preparing the Savoy Theatre for another performance, the women in the audience fanning themselves under the glare of the theater's brand-new electrical lighting, an offstage chorus member amusing herself by lip-synching to the onstage solo. And we're shown some of the devices that were transforming life in and out of the theater--the telephone, the fountain pen, etc. Leigh places The Mikado at the birth of modernism, and the movie itself has a modernist tinge, being less about story and character than about process. In one scene, Gilbert seems to more or less invent the modern art of directing, instructing his singer-actors in how to walk and talk--i.e., how to "act." Later, he works out how to block a scene using a wooden-toy stage and actual blocks of wood.
"I thought it would be a good wheeze--a good laugh--to subvert such a candy-box subject, to take it seriously and make the characters real and tangible and vulnerable," Leigh recently told New York magazine. A good wheeze? Though often funny, Topsy-Turvy isn't nearly as wheezy or breezy as, say, Shakespeare in Love, which above all wanted to have a good time. And the scenes, though always interesting and often moving, don't quite add up to a moving film. The thing doesn't gel, but it's filled with indelible performances, from the sourness of Jim Broadbent's Gilbert to the sweetness of Allan Corduner's Sullivan and the bittersweetness of just about everybody else. And it never hurts to be reminded that the theatrical life is an ineluctable combination of success and failure, greasepaint and flop sweat.